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Conscience Magazine

Catholic Nonprofits Challenge Contraceptive Coverage at Supreme Court

By Catholics for Choice April 25, 2016

In November, the Supreme Court decided to hear challenges from nonprofit organizations that object to the Affordable Care Act provision requiring employers to offer contraceptive coverage to employees. The seven cases of the religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations—the Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life, two dioceses and three religious universities—have been consolidated into one, Zubik v. Burwell. Initial arguments were heard in March.

At issue is an accommodation that allows nonprofit organizations with a religious objection to opt out of providing the coverage directly. Because this requires informing the Department of Health and Human Services, the petitioners claim this step makes them morally complicit with the contraception coverage, which would be provided to their employees directly by the insurance company.

(From left to right) US Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Supreme Court justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor at the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. © RON SACHS/ADMEDIA/CORBIS
(From left to right) US Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Supreme Court justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor at the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. © RON SACHS/ADMEDIA/CORBIS

The amicus brief released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), pointing to the penalties for refusing to sign an opt-out form as a substantial burden on the petitioners’ religious freedom—“precisely the type of situation that RFRA is intended to address.” However, RFRA stipulates that the government may still use the least restrictive means to enforce a law that furthers a compelling government interest.

Though the USCCB’s brief states that “[t]his case is only tangentially about contraception,” organizations like the National Women’s Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union are arguing that the government has a compelling interest in providing exactly that—no-cost contraceptive coverage for women.

On SCOTUSblog, Leslie C. Griffin, a professor of law at UNLV Boyd School of Law, debunked the basis of the government’s original exemption for houses of worship, which assumed that most employees would be of the same faith, and that these women would be “less likely than other people to use contraceptive services.” In fact, 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a form of modern contraception.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, commented on the ongoing legal battle for contraceptive coverage that reaches all employees: “These cases are about far more than birth control or access to healthcare. At stake are the religious liberty rights of all workers in the United States—their right to live their lives according to their own beliefs and consciences, and their freedom from having their employers’ beliefs forced upon them.”


Catholics for Choice

was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.