US Supreme Court refers contraception coverage case to lower courts

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Washington (AFP)

The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that lower courts should decide how the government can provide free insurance coverage for contraception to women working for some religious groups.

In a unanimous decision, the high court avoided ruling on the merits of the case between the government and the religiously affiliated institutions, many of them Catholic, that opposed a key mandate in the "Obamacare" health care reform requiring most employers to include birth control coverage in their health plans.

Monday's ruling came after the parties showed in briefs to the court that they could reach a compromise on how female employees could get contraception coverage from religious employers' health insurance companies, but without direct employer involvement.

The justices said in their decision that remanding the issue to lower courts was "more suitable" and noted that they expressed "no view on the merits of the cases."

The plaintiffs in seven combined lawsuits had argued that the Obamacare requirement violates a federal law protecting religious freedom.

Organizations can opt out of the birth control mandate by providing written notification of their opposition on religious grounds.

Insurance companies and the government are then responsible for providing the coverage directly to the concerned women.

Religious non-profits said the government's accommodation still burdens their free exercise of religion by making them complicit in providing contraception that is contrary to their beliefs.

Plaintiffs in the case, Zubik versus Burwell, include the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity in Washington.

The case was being closely watched as a test of a court that has been evenly split across ideological lines since the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia in February.