The Supreme Court came to the decision today to…not make any decision at all. After hearing the case of Zubik v. Burwell back in March — which questions whether religious organizations (that are not churches) must provide contraception coverage for their employees — the court asked each side to submit further briefs in an effort to determine if they could reach a compromise. And now the country's highest court has essentially punted the decision — but for a good reason.
There's a lot at stake for women in Zubik v. Burwell: the case essentially decides whether the huge array of hospitals, schools, and other facilities run by religious groups need to provide their female employees with the contraceptive care guaranteed to them under Obamacare, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act. Think of this way. A non-Catholic woman might go to work for a Catholic elementary school and expect that the school, because it is not a church itself, will provide her with insurance that includes contraceptive care like IUDs, birth control pills, and the morning-after pill. But that school, because it is run by a religious group, could argue that their First Amendment rights are at stake — that even filling out a one page form to receive an exemption would be too much work.
But is it fair for the employee to give up a basic piece of medical care over a religious belief she does not share? That's what the court was tasked with parsing out. And they seem determined to find middle ground in this case.
"Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'"
Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, there has been a lot of anxiety (among the court itself and stakeholders in their decisions) that a number of this year's cases will end up locked in 4-4 rulings, after which the lower court’s ruling is then held as the decision. For cases like Whole Women's Health v. Cole (another crucial case related to reproductive rights) a tied ruling in the Supreme Court could mean that more than half of Texas's remaining 18 abortion clinics would shutter and force some women to wait weeks and travel six hours just to get an appointment at a clinic.
And, of course, no SCOTUS decision exists in a vacuum, which is what makes these cases even more tricky; with the current state of the debate over women’s reproductive health across the country, the court is wise to not let the pendulum swing too far in either direction.
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