The move allows religious and moral exemptions to a mandate requiring employer-provided health insurance to give coverage for birth control
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, July 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed a plan by President Donald Trump's administration to give employers broad religious and moral exemptions from a federal mandate that health insurance they provide to their workers includes coverage for women's birth control.
The court ruled 7-2 against the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which challenged the legality of Trump's 2018 rule weakening the so-called contraceptive mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Christian conservatives, a key constituency for Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3, had strongly opposed the Obamacare mandate.
The federal government has estimated that up to 126,000 women could lose contraception coverage through their employer-provided health insurance under Trump's regulation.
The Obamacare mandate requires employer-provided health insurance to give coverage for birth control with no co-pays. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage. Republicans have sought to repeal Obamacare, signed by Trump's Democratic predecessor Barack Obama in 2010, and Trump's administration has chipped away at it through various actions.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called the ruling "a big win for religious freedom and freedom of conscience."
"Ensuring that women receive the healthcare they need does not require banishing religious groups that refuse to surrender their beliefs from the public square," McEnany added.
Trump's rule allows any nonprofit or for-profit employer, including publicly traded companies, to seek an exemption on religious grounds. A moral objection can be made by nonprofits and companies that are not publicly traded. The Trump exemption also would be available for religiously affiliated universities that provide health insurance to students.
Writing for the court, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas said Trump's administration "had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption."
Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. "Today, for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree," Ginsburg wrote.
The court's other two liberal justices, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, agreed with the outcome but did not did not sign on to Thomas' opinion. Kagan wrote that the regulations could yet be challenged on other grounds, including that the moral exemption is overly broad, which she said is a "close call."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, pledged to continue the fight against Trump's regulation.
"Our case is about an overly broad rule that allows the personal beliefs of CEOs to dictate women's guaranteed access to contraceptive medicine," Shapiro said.
Rules implemented under Obama exempted religious entities from the mandate. A further accommodation was created for religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, which some groups including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns that was one of the groups seeking an exemption, objected to as not going far enough.
"We are overjoyed that, once again, the Supreme Court has protected our right to serve the elderly without violating our faith," said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters.
Groups supporting the contraception mandate criticized the decision.
"Today's ruling has given bosses the power to dictate how their employees can and cannot use their health insurance - allowing them to intrude into their employees' private decisions based on whatever personal beliefs their employers happen to hold," said Lourdes Rivera of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The legal question was whether Trump's administration had the legal authority to expand the exemption under both the Obamacare law itself and another federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which lets people press religious claims against the federal government.
The administration was joined in the litigation by a Pittsburgh affiliate of the Little Sisters. Under a separate court ruling, the group already had an exemption to the mandate.
Thomas wrote that the Little Sisters "have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs" and that Trump's rule resolves their concerns.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Catholic schools in a separate legal dispute with teachers who said they were unlawfully dismissed, ruling that religious institutions like churches and schools are shielded from employment discrimination lawsuits.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)