Supreme Court upholds Wheaton College rejection of contraception coverage

The Supreme Court offered another sign that it favors letting employers with religious objections avoid the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

Over the objection of its three female justices, the court late Thursday blocked the administration from forcing evangelical Wheaton College to sanction insurance coverage for emergency birth control even though it would not have had to offer the coverage at all.

The court made clear that it’s not done with the religious liberty issue following the court’s June 30 ruling that closely-held, for-profit corporations with objections to certain contraception methods do not have to offer this type of coverage to their employees.

Noting that appeals courts across the country are divided on how religious nonprofits such as charities, hospitals, and colleges should be covered under the regulation, the court said that “such division is a traditional ground for certiorari,” which means a decision by the justices to resolve the issue.

The court said women employees of Wheaton College outside Chicago should be able to get emergency contraception services from private insurers without requiring the college to sign a form it claims would make it complicit in the transaction.

It was that arrangement in which objecting religious nonprofits would sign over their responsibility to offer contraception coverage to insurers or third-party administrators that the court cited Monday as a potential solution for profit-making companies such as the craft store chain Hobby Lobby.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by fellow Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, dissented from the order. She said the accommodation already granted to nonprofits “is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests in public health and women’s well-being.”

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so to­day,” Sotomayor said. She even declared insufficient the very accommodation it held out Monday as a possible solution for Hobby Lobby “evinces disregard for even the newest of this court’s precedents and undermines confidence in this institution,” she stated.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the Health and Human Services Department issued a regulation requiring employers to offer women’s preventive health insurance coverage that includes 20 forms of contraception.

The administration exempted churches and other religious institutions from the requirement. After religious nonprofits objected, it devised its accommodation: They could fill out a form registering the objections which would trigger provision of the coverage by insurers.

Two types of lawsuits grew out of the contraception mandate. Dozens of nonprofits challenged that arrangement. Dozens of for-profit corporations, mostly of the closely-held, family-owned type, sought exemptions of their own as well.

“We continue to believe that a college community that affirms the sanctity of human life from conception to the grave should not be coerced by the government into facilitating the provision of abortion-inducing drugs,” said Wheaton College president Philip Ryken.

Following Monday’s 5-4 ruling, those for-profit companies can expect favorable treatment in lower courts. It is a process the Supreme Court already began by denying some government petitions and directing courts to reconsider private challenges.

Thursday’s order points toward similarly favorable treatment for other nonprofits whose status is the same as Wheaton’s. Beyond denying contraceptive coverage without co-payments to hundreds of the college’s employees and students, Sotomayor said, the recent order “will presumably entitle hundreds or thousands of other objectors to the same remedy.”

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