It was sort of a non-decision, but all eight justices jointly agreed to vacate lower court rulings, call on both sides to work things out better (which was really a directive to government lawyers), and bring sanity to a long, unnecessary and costly ordeal that has run through the court system across the country over a federally mandated contraceptive delivery scheme that already exempted major corporations and millions of Americans.
Enough already. So said the ruling, in so many words.
The parties, the court said, should have another opportunity to work out a way to deliver contraceptives that doesn’t violate the religious objections of the Little Sisters and their co-plaintiffs.
Most important, the Supreme Court took away the administration’s tool for bullying: The government, it said, “may not impose taxes or penalties” on those who refuse to authorize their plans to provide the contested coverage.
It was so targeted against Catholic and other Christian groups, it had to be reconsidered.
“The Little Sisters won, but what this unanimous ruling shows is that there was never a need for anyone to lose,” said (Becket Fund for Religious Liberty legal counsel Mark) Rienzi. “The government will still be able to meet its goal of providing these free services to women who want them—not just for those with religious plans—but for the tens of millions in exempted corporate and government plans.”
The government always had that ability, was already doing it in those already exempted, and never needed to choose this controversial challenge to religious liberty in America.
…the opinion is an obvious rebuke to the Obama administration — and rightly so. The Obama administration has shown no compunction about using the full force of the federal government to coerce a group of nuns into violating their religious vows. But following oral arguments in March, the Court requested supplemental briefs from both parties addressing whether the government could provide contraception coverage without entangling religious nonprofits, and the government grudgingly admitted that it was possible. According to the Court, the “substantial clarification and refinement” of the parties’ positions suggests that a compromise satisfactory to both sides is possible.
If not for the government’s obstinacy, that would have been possible long ago. HHS had already exempted an enormous number of employers from the mandate, among them large corporations — Exxon, Pepsi, and Visa — and government entities, including New York City and the U.S. military. Tens of millions of American employees have insurance plans exempted from the mandate. Yet the Obama administration has insisted on foisting its fiat on nuns, archdioceses, Christian colleges, and the like. The liberals on the Court could have sanctioned this contemptible imposition. A 4–4 split would have left the lower courts’ rulings in place, and three of the four courts had ruled against the Little Sisters or their co-plaintiffs. The Court’s willingness to vacate those decisions suggests that, despite its left-leaning majority, this Court is not entirely hostile to religious liberty. This is, recall, largely the same Court that ruled unanimously against the Obama administration inHosanna-Tabor when the federal government claimed for itself the power to determine who is and is not a “minister.” (Emphasis added)
Hosanna-Tabor was decided unanimously on January 11, 2012. Nine days before the federal government turned around and claimed for itself again the power to determine what a religious ministry, institution and employer was, and what it could and must do. It took four years and four months, and one fewer justice, for the Supreme Court unanimously to rule again in favor of this fundamental freedom protected by law.
In the nearly six months left before the presidential election, the parties’ and candidates’ views of religious freedom will play a more important role in debates, townhalls, and campaigns, as they should.