WASHINGTON – In a ruling issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld a Trump administration policy that lets employers opt out of a requirement under the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage.
The decision significantly expands an existing exemption that applied to houses of worship but not to nonprofits, hospitals and schools that may now cite religious or moral objections to avoid providing no-cost contraception to employees. According to government estimates, about 70,000 to 126,000 women could lose their birth control coverage as a result.
The Trump administration argued on behalf of employers, along with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity that runs homes for the elderly across the country.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, cheered the decision on Twitter.
“In America, religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed,” she wrote. “The Supreme Court’s decision is a great victory for the #LittleSisters. This decision upholds their freedom to serve the poor without being forced to violate their conscience & sincerely held beliefs.”
Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s health committee, decried the ruling and called for Congress to act to restore the health care guarantees the Affordable Care Act put in place when it became law just over a decade ago.
“I’m incredibly disappointed by the Court’s decision that leaves many who can’t afford birth control on their own, but I’m as determined as ever to keep up the fight for reproductive rights,” the Washington Democrat said. “Essential health care shouldn’t be a luxury for people who can afford it, and no one should have to worry about their health care decisions being overruled by their employer, their school, or President Trump and Vice President Pence.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also expressed her disappointed in a statement.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling today sets a dangerous precedent and will strip birth control coverage from Americans,” Cantwell said. “An employer’s personal beliefs shouldn’t dictate the health coverage employees can receive.”
A statement from Gonzaga University, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church, said the ruling would not affect the school’s health insurance plans.
“Gonzaga University’s self-insured health care plan does not cover contraceptive services,” the school said. “GU’s third-party health care administrator, Premera Blue Cross, provides contraceptive services coverage for any employee who wishes to utilize it. Gonzaga University does not anticipate any changes to this policy.”
The issue made its way to the nation’s highest court after the Trump administration moved in 2018 to expand the kinds of organizations that could opt out of providing no-cost contraception. Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the rule, pointing out that those who lose coverage from their employers rely on state-funded services.
The Little Sisters of the Poor filed a separate lawsuit – the court considered both cases together – with the order of nuns arguing that the narrower, Obama-era exemption violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to have a compelling reason for programs that burden religious beliefs.
The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, and ordered a lower court to end a nationwide injunction that had kept the new exemption from taking effect. The court’s other two liberal justices, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, sided with five conservative judges but did not join them in the majority opinion.
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