The Supreme Court voted Wednesday 7-2 to uphold the rules of the Trump administration to allow employers with sincere moral or religious objections to deny employees access to free contraceptive coverage.
The rules expanded the exclusion of the contraceptive coverage mandate included in the Affordable Care Act, the health care review commonly known as Obamacare. According to government estimates, the religious exemption would lead to the possibility of 125,000 women losing their coverage.
Judge Clarence Thomas, author of the majority opinion, wrote that the Trump administration “had the authority to provide exemptions from regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections.”
“The only question we face today is what authorizes the plain language of the statute,” wrote Thomas. “And the clear language of the law clearly allows Departments to create standards of preventive care, as well as religious and moral exemptions.”
Thomas’ opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Judge Elena Kagan wrote separately to explain her majority vote, and she joined Judge Stephen Breyer. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor disagree.
The Supreme Court challenge came after Pennsylvania and New Jersey had successfully halted implementation of the regulations in the lower courts. States argued that the federal government did not follow the legal protocol known as notification and comment when creating the rules.
States said that if the rules went into effect, they would be affected by higher costs to run their taxpayer-funded family planning programs.
A federal district court sided with the states and prevented the new rules from taking effect. That decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia.
The Trump administration, through the Department of Justice, and the Roman Catholic non-profit Little Sisters of the Poor asked the Supreme Court to overturn those decisions.
The Justice Department told the court that the exemptions are required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the government from substantially overloading religious practice unless it can demonstrate that it is using the “least restrictive means” to promote a compelling government interest.
Thomas declined to say whether the RFRA required the rules of the Trump administration.
“In light of our celebration that [Obamacare] provided a basis for both exemptions, we don’t need to come up with these arguments, “he wrote.
In one meeting, Alito said he would have discovered that the RFRA required exemptions, noting that by not doing so, most left room for continued challenges. Alito’s crowd joined Gorsuch.
“We are now forwarding these cases to the lower courts, where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey are sure to continue their argument that the current rule is wrong in another area,” he wrote. “This will prolong the legal battle in which the Little Sisters have been engaged for seven years, despite the fact that during all this time no employee of the Little Sisters has raised an objection to the Little Sisters’ conduct.”
Kagan, accompanied by Breyer, wrote that he also anticipated further litigation, and that the administration was very likely to lose.
“I wonder if the exemptions can survive the administrative law demand to make reasoned decisions,” Kagan wrote. “That issue remains open for the lower courts to address.”
On that front, Kagan wrote, the exemptions “give the appearance of falling short.”
The application of the exemptions to publicly-traded companies and “those with no religious need” raised questions about whether they were reasonable, Kagan wrote.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement that “this fight is not over.”
“Our case was never about requiring religious groups to provide contraceptives: organizations like the Little Sisters are already exempt, “Shapiro said.” Our case is too broad a rule that CEOs’ personal beliefs dictate women’s guaranteed access to contraceptive medicine. “
Ginsburg, accompanied by Sotomayor, criticized the court’s dissenting decision, writing that in the past, the court had “taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. “
“Today, for the first time, the Court completely sets aside compensatory rights and interests in its quest to guarantee religious rights in the nth degree,” wrote Ginsburg.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany celebrated the ruling Wednesday.
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a great victory for religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” McEnany said in a statement.
“From day one, the Trump Administration has tried to lift the burden of religious exercise for people of all faiths. As the Supreme Court has previously stated, protect the ability of people to worship and live according to the dictates of their conscience is part of ‘the best of our traditions,’ “McEnany said. “Today’s Court decision carries on that noble tradition.”
Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said in a statement that the ruling was “a great victory for the defense of religious freedom of President Trump and protects Americans of faith who provide vital health and social services to millions of Americans, especially the needy and vulnerable. “
The final impact of the decision could be determined by the outcome of the November presidential race.
Katherine Franke, faculty director of the Columbia University Law, Rights and Religion Project, said an irony of the case was that it “gives the federal government vast powers.”
“If you vote Trump out of office and vote for the Biden administration, I would predict that the first thing they will do is reestablish a broad contraceptive mandate,” he said.
The cases are Donald Trump v. Pennsylvania, No. 19-454, and The Little Sisters of Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, No. 19-431.
In a separate case, the court ruled 7-2 on Wednesday in favor of two religious schools that argued that they should not have to face lawsuits for job discrimination filed by former teachers.