Web Video: Supreme Court hears birth control battle brought by religious nonprofits

Mar. 24, 2016 AT 11:23 a.m. EDT

The Supreme Court heard its fourth challenge to the Affordable Care Act, this one from religious nonprofits demanding exemption from the requirement to provide insurance coverage for birth control, claiming the mandate violates federal laws protecting religious freedoms. Gwen Ifill talks to Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal for more details on the case.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, we turn to the Supreme Court, where the clash between religious freedom and women’s access to birth control played out once again today.

PROTESTERS: Hands off my birth control!

GWEN IFILL: Today marked the fourth time the high court has heard a challenge to the president’s signature health care law.

At the center of today’s case, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. Just two years ago, arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby challenged that mandate, and won. Justices ruled that family-owned companies run on religious principles could refuse to pay for their employees’ birth control.

Today’s case shifted the focus from private companies to the potential burden for religious nonprofits. The challenge comes in part from an order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Along with six other plaintiffs, they argue the law forces them to either violate their beliefs or pay a substantial fine.

MOTHER LORAINE MAGUIRE, Little Sisters of the Poor: We find ourselves in a situation where the government is requiring us to make changes in our health care, our religious health care plan to include services that really violate our deepest-held religious beliefs as Little Sisters.

GWEN IFILL: The National Women’s Law Center sided with the Obama administration, saying coverage alternatives for these groups already exist.

GRETCHEN BORCHELT, National Women’s Law Center: Women deserve insurance coverage for birth control no matter where they work. These employers want to take that benefit away from their employees. The alternatives that they proposed in court today are unworkable and, frankly, insulting.

GWEN IFILL: A ruling is expected by June.

For more on today’s arguments, we turn to our “NewsHour” regular Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.” She was, as always, in the court today.

It seems like we had a discussion about morality at the Supreme Court, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Yes, because the religious nonprofits that have brought these cases — and there are seven cases — to the Supreme Court feel that the government’s attempt to accommodate their objections is making them complicit in immoral, sinful conduct.

GWEN IFILL: So, how did this end up back at the court? Because we have — the court has ruled on this, on Obamacare before, a couple times now.


In fact, this is the fourth time the court’s looked at the law. But this is — it really involves health regulations under the Affordable Care Act, and there are — there have been dozens and dozens of lawsuits by religious nonprofits almost from the beginning of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

GWEN IFILL: Including universities and schools.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right.

It is not just Little Sisters of the Poor even before the Supreme Court. There are religious-affiliated colleges. There are Roman Catholic diocese and some clergy who are also party to these cases.

GWEN IFILL: So what are the other options? What is the compromise that the administration was offering?

MARCIA COYLE: The administration has told the religious nonprofits to simply write a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services notifying the department of their objections, and also to give the department the name of their health insurer or their third-party administrator.

The religious nonprofits say they are not objecting to objecting, but they claim that by providing the name of their insurer or third-party administrator, they’re allowing the government to hijack their insurance plan and provide the coverage to their employees that they object to. And this makes them complicit in that coverage.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, Justice — Chief Justice Roberts used that word hijacked today. Tell us about how this played out in front of the court.

MARCIA COYLE: Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito in particular were the most aggressive questioners of the solicitor general of the United States defending the accommodation in this case.

And Chief Justice Roberts said he thought that hijacking was an accurate description of what’s happening here. But the solicitor general told the justices that it’s not accurate. He said that these insurance plans do not belong to the employers. They belong to the insurers.

And the government has always had the ability to make arrangements with third parties. And, in this case, the government would arrange with the insurer to provide the contraceptive coverage in a separate agreement, separate communications, and segregated funds. The employer is entirely out of it.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we know, of course, that last time there was a challenge to the Affordable Care Act involving the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Scalia was still alive, still a nine-member court.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: With the 4-4 split, what did you discern from the arguments today about how that’s going to turn out?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, my sense is — as I left the courtroom, is that the court is evenly divided.

If the government wants to win a ruling for the entire nation, it’s going to need somebody from the conservative side to move over to the liberal side, so that there would be a 5-3 majority. The most likely person often is Justice Kennedy. But he gave conflicting signals during the argument, but he also did pick up the hijacking language.

So it’s not clear to me how this is going to come out. I would say, Gwen, that this court doesn’t like 4-4 decisions. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. It doesn’t create a precedent. And it leaves uneven law throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: But if it were to happen in this case, what stands?


OK, the lower court’s opinion stands. Now, in these seven cases, four federal appellate courts have ruled for the government. An additional three appellate courts ruled for the government. One has not. So, in the states where the government won, the employers have to comply.

GWEN IFILL: OK. It’s complicated.


GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry to throw that at you at the last minute.

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal,” thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Gwen.


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