By Baptist News Global and BJC Staff Reports

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals from religious nonprofits challenging the accommodation that allows them to opt out of coverage of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act.

The High Court granted review and consolidated seven cases to resolve once and for all whether an accommodation allowing institutions like religious hospitals and universities to opt out of the contraceptive mandate significantly burdens their religious freedom.

It will be the fourth time for the Supreme Court to hear a challenge related to the Affordable Care Act, described as the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration, and the second challenging a rule set by the Health and Human Services Department that employer-provided health insurance plans must cover preventive health care, including a full range of birth control options for women.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not compel the closely held corporation Hobby Lobby to provide certain contraceptives to which its owners objected because of their religious belief that those contraceptives amount to abortion.

At the outset of the Affordable Care Act, pervasively religious organizations, such as churches and their integrated auxiliaries that serve primarily church members and exist for propagation of the faith, have been exempt from the coverage mandate. 

The exemption does not cover religious institutions such as faith-based charities, schools and hospitals that employ people from various faiths. After receiving feedback, the administration added an accommodation allowing employees of such organizations to receive the mandated coverage without their employer footing the bill. When a religious employer opts out of contraceptive coverage, responsibility shifts to the organization’s insurance provider to pay for coverage of birth control at no cost to the worker or organization.

The cases the Court consolidated involve religious organizations suing the government. The organizations say that the requirement of letting the government know in writing they wish to opt out of providing the coverage makes them complicit in the distribution of methods of birth control that they believe are morally equivalent to abortion.

Seven federal appeals courts have rejected that argument, reasoning that the act of submitting an opt-out form relieves, rather than imposes, any substantial burden on religious exercise. In September, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals differed, finding the opt-out provision violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the combined cases, which will be known as Zubik v. Burwell, in the spring.

From the November/December 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.