Backgrounder: Religious ask Supreme Court for exemptions to Affordable Care Act

Religious exemptions for contraception coverage in employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act will be argued (again) before the Supreme Court Wednesday in the case Zubik v. Burwell.

Burwell is Sylvia Mary Mathews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Zubik is David A. Zubik, bishop of Pittsburgh, Pa., and lead petitioner in a joint appeal by the Catholic dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa.

Zubik v. Burwell consolidates seven cases (see the full list below) of various religious schools, colleges, hospitals and charities, notably the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver.

Zubik and his fellow petitioners object on religious grounds to what has become known as the contraception mandate, which makes free birth control available to students and employees of religiously affiliated institutions such as schools, hospitals and social service agencies, and they want to be exempt from it.

The Obama administration has offered these types of institutions an accommodation whereby they can give written notice to either their insurer or the Department of Health and Human Services directly, that they oppose contraception on religious grounds. In these cases, the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to provide birth control for free.

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The petitioners, however, say the accommodation itself infringes on their religious rights. Zubik told his hometown newspaper he and the other plaintiffs object because, they say, even submitting an opt-out notice makes them "complicit in a grave moral wrong," enabling the birth control that is provided.

"We still have to sign off," Zubik said. "In reality, we’re giving the green light that says we’re agreeing that you can provide these services, and that raises the issue that we’re being asked to do something that goes against our faith."

NCR analyst Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese has written extensively on these issues:

The cases consolidated under Zubik v. Burwell are Priests for Life v. Department of Health and Human Services; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Burwell; East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell; Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell; Geneva College v. Burwell; and The Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.

Stay tuned to NCR for more analiys and commentary.


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