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The Supreme Court Punts Contraception Controversy Back to Lower Courts

June 16th, 2016

contraception pills in packaging

Wheaton College is not alone in its convictions; four dozen other religious organizations have also filed lawsuits against the Obama Administration over the new birth control law.

On May 16, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States (the “Supreme Court”) issued an opinion remanding a string of cases related to contraception and contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In its opinion, the Supreme Court vacated the decisions of the lower courts, and asked that the respective courts allow the parties an opportunity to resolve the issues between them.

This is an interesting tactic on behalf of the Supreme Court, as they are in essence acting as mediators as opposed to judges. The Supreme Court’s decision is likely due to the fact that there are currently only eight justices, and they are sharply divided on this issue. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February of this year, the Supreme Court deadlocked on three separate occasions, and a deadlock on the issue of contraceptive coverage would likely cause further disarray.


The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed by President Obama in 2010. Under the ACA, employers providing employees with health insurance are required to cover some contraceptive costs in their health insurance plans. An employer’s refusal to provide contraceptive costs in their employee health plans may result in a fine against that employer. This so-called “contraception mandate” caused a huge controversy resulting in multiple lawsuits.

Churches are exempt from the ACA’s requirement concerning contraceptives. Other religiously affiliated institutions and nonprofit organizations, however, are not. The main argument against the contraception mandate is that employers that claim certain religious or moral convictions should not be required to provide contraception to their employees.

As a result of the controversy, an accommodation offered to religious groups allowed them to opt out of contraception coverage and to avoid fines provided they informed the appropriate person that they wanted an exemption. The government or the insurance company would then pay for the contraception coverage. Some religious groups objected to the accommodation contending that it still went against their religious or moral convictions and made them complicit in the act of providing contraception.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion

All but one of the appellate courts deciding the controversy upheld the accommodation, and the Supreme Court’s opinion voids those decisions. The opinion specifically states that it is not meant to decide the merits of any of the cases before it, and made it clear that the lower courts were free to decide in the same way or differently on each of the issues presented. The Supreme Court urged the appellate courts to give the parties ample opportunity to determine an approach that accommodates an individual’s religious exercise while also ensuring that women “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.”

What Happens Now?

At this time, the cases at issue in the Supreme Court’s opinion will revert back to the court from which they came. There is no timeline for any of the lower courts to make a decision, and based on the opinion of the Supreme Court advocating for a peaceful resolution, this issue will likely linger for a while. For the time being, women will continue to get the health coverage they need.

It will be interesting to see how the lower courts handle the Supreme Court’s opinion, and whether they will be able to find a peaceful resolution that satisfies both sides. The Universal Life Church will continue to monitor the cases now back in the appellate courts and will update you on that process.



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