High court suspends contraception rule for Christian college

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WASHINGTON — In a decision that drew an unusually fierce dissent from the three female justices, the Supreme Court sided Thursday with religiously affiliated nonprofit groups in a clash between religious freedom and women’s rights.

The decision temporarily bars the government from enforcing against a Christian college part of the regulations that provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The court’s order was brief, provisional and unsigned, but it drew a furious reaction from the three female justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan — who said the court had betrayed a promise it made Monday in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which involved for-profit corporations.

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” said the dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor. “Not so today.”

At issue in the order, involving Wheaton College in Illinois, are federal forms that groups must fill out and send to their insurers and plan administrators as an alternate way to deliver free contraception to female workers under the Affordable Care Act.

Monday’s majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case, written by Justice Samuel Alito, seemed to suggest that the accommodation in which the forms played a role was an acceptable alternative to having employers pay for the coverage. He referred to it when he said the government already “has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraception methods that violate their religious beliefs.”

The difference between a form sent to insurance companies and plan administrators on the one hand and a letter sent to the government on the other mattered, the college told the justices, “because it believes, as a religious matter, that signing the form would be impermissibly facilitating abortions and therefore forbidden,” the brief said.

“To be sure, free citizens in a diverse nation will have different views about whether signing the form makes someone complicit,” the college’s brief said. “But that is a question of ‘religious and moral philosophy’ for Wheaton,” not the government. The quoted phrase came from the Hobby Lobby decision.

The court’s majority said Wheaton College need not fill out the forms. Instead, the order said, the college could just notify the government in writing. The government, it said, remains free “to facilitate the provision of full contraceptive coverage.”

The court issued a similar order in January in a case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns. That time, there were no noted dissents.

United States - North America - United States government - Sonia Sotomayor - Elena Kagan - Supreme Court of the United States - Samuel Alito - Ruth Bader Ginsburg


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