High Court Will Hear Arguments in Key Religious Liberty Case

A case that has been closely followed by advocates of religious liberty, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, was added on Friday to the Supreme Court’s docket for the coming year, with the justices stepping into the fourth legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act since Obama signed it into law in 2010.

Plaintiffs claim that the present protocols of the Act force them to be party to the delivery of medical services that violate their religious beliefs. Among the challengers are Bishop David Zubik, head of the Catholic Diocese in Pittsburgh; the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who run more than two dozen nursing homes for impoverished seniors; and evangelical and Catholic colleges in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Daniel Bromberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the firm representing Little Sisters, told Hamodia when briefs were initially filed that his clients’ claims are twofold. First, they say that the accommodation currently in place still makes them complicit to delivery of objectionable products or services. Second, they contest the government’s claim that their organization is too secular in nature to qualify for the faith-based exemption.

Plaintiffs also argue that the government’s willingness to exempt large companies such as Exxon and Boeing from participation in the new healthcare plan for reasons of the businesses’ expediency, while denying them the right to do so for reasons of conscience, constitutes discrimination.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration is “confident” that their current policy “appropriately balances” Americans’ access to the healthcare they need “while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in our Constitution.”

In a landmark ruling last year, the justices allowed some “closely held” businesses with religious objections to refuse to pay for goods and services they objected to.

In that case, the court agreed by a 5-4 vote with the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and other companies that their rights were being violated under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In the wake of that ruling, the administration made an accommodation for religious objectors to provide the services in question through a third party. Most organizations have accepted the arrangement, but several Catholic groups, including the Sisters, feel that this level of involvement still violates their beliefs.

Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement.

For other religiously-affiliated nonprofit groups, the administration argues that the accommodation creates a generous moral and financial buffer between religious objectors and the obligations of the administration’s healthcare mandate.

In order to receive an exemption, groups must fill out a government document or otherwise notify the government so that their insurers or third-party administrators can take on the responsibility of paying for the services. The employer does not have to arrange the coverage or pay for it; insurers are reimbursed by the government through credits against fees owed under other parts of the health law.

Dozens of colleges, hospitals, charities and other organizations have said in lawsuits that they are still being forced to provide coverage for medical products or services they feel violate their religious beliefs. The government may impose heavy fines on groups that do not comply.

An amicus brief was submitted by Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, who has led several congregations and served as a military chaplain; Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnei Jeshurun of Teaneck, NJ.; and Rabbi Dov Fischer of Cong. Beth Jacob of Irvine, California, all three leaders in the Rabbinical Council of America. Their brief urged the court to consider the case as one that has broad significance to religious minorities, whose practices and tenets the judges would most likely be unfamiliar with.

Seven out of eight federal appeals courts have agreed with the administration that their accommodation does not violate the federal religious freedom law. Only the appeals court in St. Louis ruled for the groups, saying they probably have a right to refuse to comply with the administration rules.

Arguments will take place in late March.

With reporting from Associated Press