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Religious freedom, contraceptive rules get new hearing as Supreme Court sends Notre Dame case back
Religious freedom and mandates for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act will get yet another federal court airing after the Supreme Court ruled Monday the University of Notre Dame's arguments need to be reheard by a circuit court. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Nine months after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of privately held business opting out of contraceptive care mandates under the Affordable Care Act, a nonprofit Roman Catholic university will get the opportunity to again present its case for an exemption.

According to a Supreme Court summary, the justices vacated an earlier appeals court ruling against Notre Dame and "remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for further consideration in light of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc."

The decision was seen by observers as well as supporters of Notre Dame's position as a significant move.

"The (Supreme Court's) order gives the Catholic university a new chance to argue that it is being improperly forced to violate its religious beliefs by facilitating what it considers to be abortion," Insurance Journal reported. Notre Dame could have filed a form requesting an exemption, essentially requiring its insurance carriers to pay for the contraceptives separately. The school objected, Reuters reported, because 'the certification process still essentially forces the groups to authorize the coverage for employees even if they are not technically paying for it.

According to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy law firm, "The University of Notre Dame brought its request to the Supreme Court after a surprising lower court decision that made it the only nonprofit religious ministry in the nation without protection from the HHS mandate. The federal government has relied heavily on that decision in courts around the country, arguing that it should be able to impose similar burdens on religious ministries (such as) the Little Sisters of the Poor."

Becket senior counsel Mark Rienzi said, "This is a major blow to the federal governments contraception mandate. For the past year, the Notre Dame decision has been the centerpiece of the governments effort to force religious ministries to violate their beliefs or pay fines to the IRS."

One opponent said the religious freedom argument was a smokescreen.

"Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and it should be protected, Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "But its absurd to assert that simply filling out a form stating an objection violates religious freedom. What Notre Dame and others really object to is women getting the contraceptive coverage they need. Thats discrimination, plain and simple."

According to the South Bend Tribune, Notre Dame's hometown newspaper, university spokesman Paul Browne said the university "continues to challenge the federal mandate as an infringement on our fundamental right to the free exercise of our Catholic faith."

One of Notre Dame's objections is that the mandate required institutions to provide "abortion inducing products, contraception and sterilization" via the insurance process, despite Catholic teachings against artificial birth control, according to the Catholic News Agency.

But the online publication Slate found a contradiction in Monday's decision, noting, "In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., SCOTUS seemed to explicitly endorse the non-religious organization exemption as a way to protect religious employers and then on Monday it told another court to reconsider its endorsement of the nonprofit religious organization exemption 'in light of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
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