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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether the nation's religiously affiliated schools and charities should be exempt from the contraceptive requirement of Obamacare.
Churches are already exempt. Now the court will answer a question that has sparked dozens of lawsuits nationwide: what about religiously affiliated non-profit groups that also object to contraceptives?
It's a sequel to last year's ruling that said closely held, for-profit companies could refuse on religious grounds to cover contraceptives in their employee insurance plans.
The Obama administration says they already get an accommodation that "effectively exempts" them from the coverage requirements. The groups must notify the government that they have a religious objection to the coverage, and they provide contact information for their insurance company or third-party administering the plan.
The government then arranges with the insurer to provide the coverage at no cost to the organization's employees.
The justices granted review to seven cases that raise the issue, including a challenge brought by a group of Catholic nuns called The Little Sisters of the Poor, who devote their lives to caring for the elderly poor.
The Little Sisters object to playing any role in the process of making birth control pills and devices available to their employees or students, even the limited one under the government's accommodation. They want the same kind of total exemption given to churches.
Joined by other religiously affiliated groups, the nuns say even under the accommodation, they must still take steps to ensure that the employees covered by their insurance plans get contraceptive coverage.
The government's requirement, says Washington, DC lawyer Paul Clement, representing the group, "is designed to force a religious employer to allow its own plan to be used to facilitate access to the very contraceptive coverage that it finds religiously objectionable."
The organizations, Clement says, "object to facilitating, or being complicit in, or paving the way" for contraceptives to be available, even by transferring their coverage obligations to others.
During his US visit, Pope Francis made a point of meeting with the Little Sisters. A Vatican spokesman said it was intended to be "a sign of support for them."
The Obama administration says the way the system works relieves the organizations of the duty to provide contraceptives and is the least restrictive way of accomplishing the law's requirement to provide preventive health care for women.
In other words, the government says what the groups have to do is next to nothing, even though the groups say it's still too much. Seven federal appeals courts have agreed with the government, but one has sided with the religious groups.
The Supreme Court will hear the cases next year, most likely in March, with a decision expected by late June.