Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in HHS mandate cases March 23

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 29 announced that it will hear oral arguments March 23 in seven pending appeals in lawsuits brought by several Catholic and other faith-based entities against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

Among the plaintiffs are the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses, Priests for Life, Southern Nazarene University and Texas Baptist University.

The cases are being referred to collectively as Zubik v. Burwell. Bishop David A. Zubik heads the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees’ artificial birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage.

In all of the cases to be argued before the high court in March, appellate courts in various jurisdictions sided with the Obama administration. The rulings said the religious entities’ freedom of religion was not burdened by having to comply with the mandate as they have argued, because the federal government has in place an accommodation, or “work around,” for a third party to provide the contested coverage.

These employers must notify HHS in writing of their religious objections. Then HHS or the Department of Labor in turn tells insurers and third-party administrators that they must cover the services at no charge to employees.

But the religious groups object to that third-party notification, saying they still would be complicit in supporting practices they oppose.

While their appeals worked their way to the high court, the government has not been able to force the groups to comply with the mandate or face daily fines for noncompliance.

Only those religious employers that meet narrow criteria set by the Obama administration are exempt from the mandate. Houses of worship are exempt, for example, but most Catholic and other religious employers are not.