SCOTUS gives Trump victory in landmark reproductive rights cases

The cases addressed Trump's broadening of religious exemptions for providing birth control in the Affordable Care Act

    Sister Loraine McGuire with Little Sisters of the Poor speaks to the media after Zubik v Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]
    Sister Loraine McGuire with Little Sisters of the Poor speaks to the media after Zubik v Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

    The US Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed a plan by President Donald Trump's administration to give employers broad religious and moral exemptions from a federal mandate that health insurance they provide employees covers women's birth control.

    The court ruled 7-2 against the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which challenged the legality of the administration's 2018 rule weakening the so-called "contraceptive mandate" of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare", that has drawn the ire of Christian conservatives.

    The two consolidated cases were Little Sisters of the Poor v Pennsylvania and Donald J Trump v Pennsylvania. 

    These cases called into question the legality of the Trump administration's 2019 rule broadening conscientious objection exemptions to the Affordable Care Act regarding abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, advance directives and other types of medical care.

    "We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption. We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

    As a result of the Obama-era health law, most employers must cover birth control as a preventive service, at no charge to women, in their insurance plans.

    This ruling allows employers to deny payment for birth control on religious or moral grounds.

    The government had estimated that the rule changes would cause about 70,000 women, and at most 126,000 women, to lose contraception coverage in one year.

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited those numbers in dissenting.

    "In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree," she wrote.

    Birth control has been a topic of contention since the law was passed. Initially, churches, synagogues and mosques were exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement.

    The Obama administration also created a way by which religiously affiliated organisations including hospitals, universities and charities could opt out of paying for contraception, but women on their health plans would still get no-cost birth control. Some groups complained the opt-out process itself violated their religious beliefs.

    That opt-out process was the subject of a 2016 Supreme Court case, but the court, with only eight justices at the time because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, did not decide the issue. It instead sent both sides back to see if they could work out a compromise.

    After the Trump administration took over, officials announced a rule change that allows many companies and organisations with religious or moral objections to opt out of covering birth control without providing an alternate avenue for coverage.

    But the change was blocked by courts after New Jersey and Pennsylvania challenged it.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies