By Brandon Moseley
Alabama political Reporter
Monday, May 16, the US Supreme Court unanimously agreed to vacate a lower court decision in the ongoing legal battle between the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Obama Administration. The Court sent the case back to the lower court for it to be settled there. The Court did not decide on the bigger issues; but the ruling is being interpreted as a victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and their quest not to be forced to pay for health benefits for their employees, who violate their Christian ethics.
The Montgomery based Foundation for Moral Law applauded the US Supreme Court’s decision not to decide in the Zubik v. Burwell decision, as an opportunity to work out a solution that protects the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, and others similarly situated.
The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) requires that all employers provide contraception and abortion coverage for their employees. Some organizations with religious objections were given the option of opting out in favor of a third-party provider, but the Little Sisters object that this still violates their convictions because their act of opting out triggered the alternate coverage.
Foundation President Kayla Moore said, “We are relieved that the Little Sisters will no longer be subjected to exorbitant fines for being true to their convictions. We hope a solution can be found, but we urge the Little Sisters to stand firm and not compromise their fundamental religious liberty.”
Foundation Senior Counsel John Eidsmore noted that the Foundation had submitted an amicus brief in the case, and “we remain very interested in the outcome. But if the Little Sisters are successful, this will mean only that a small segment of the public is exempted from these onerous provisions. To protect all Americans from socialized medicine, the entire Affordable Care Act needs to be either repealed by Congress or invalidated by the Court.”
The Supreme Court declined to make a definitive ruling, saying both sides should attempt to forge a compromise which doesn’t mandate that religious organizations offer contraceptive coverage in a way that infringes on their religious freedom. The court asked the government to find a way to provide contraceptive coverage that doesn’t require the Little Sisters to do take part in it by signing a form or doing anything that would make them complicit in triggering that same coverage by another party.
The Court wrote, “Both petitioners and the government now confirm that such an option is feasible.” the justices wrote. The Little Sisters of the Poor are a Catholic religious order of nuns who care for the elderly.
The decision has a potential impact on similar cases including, the long running court battle between the Irondale based Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), and the government over the same issue.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) filed an amicus brief to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which was joined by the Attorneys General of Florida and Georgia, in support of EWTN and their challenge to Obamacare’s mandate that birth control and abortion-inducing drugs be available in its employees’ health care plans.
The US Department of Health and Human Services requires religious employers to arrange for health insurance that covers contraception and sterilization services, and related counseling and education. This mandated coverage also includes “emergency contraceptives” and certain abortion-inducing drugs.
AG Strange asked the 11th Circuit Court for a rehearing of its previous decision in favor of the mandate. Strange said that the Justices ruled that under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Court should have not made its own judgment of whether EWTN’s religious beliefs are reasonable, but rather, whether they are sincerely held. The 11th Circuit had previously ruled against EWTN, which appealed to the the issue was recently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in another case, Zubik v. Burwell, involving Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations. Today, the US Supreme Court returned Zubik v. Burwell to a lower court to reach a compromise.
AG Strange wrote, “I will continue standing with EWTN against Obamacare’s outrageous mandate that infringes upon fundamental religious beliefs and liberties. Today’s US Supreme Court decision to send a similar case back for a possible compromise underscores the flawed 11th Circuit decision against EWTN. The government may not force citizens to violate their deeply-held religious values, and I will not relent in fighting for the religious freedom that is enshrined in our Constitution as our ‘first’ right.”
Alabama’s amicus brief notes EWTN’s sincere religious beliefs that prohibit it from providing certain sterilization or contraception, and likewise from participating in an arrangement for those services to be provided. It cites the US Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby as a precedent that EWTN should be protected from steep fines if it refuses to arrange for these services, or from being forced to drop its health care coverage altogether which would also violate its religious beliefs and result in severe fines.
Most Court observers had expected the high Court to split 4 – 4 between conservative leaning jurists and liberal leaning jurists. The unanimous decision to send Zubik vs Burwell to the lower court surprised many.