Supreme Court sends ACA contraception case back to lower courts: 5 things to know

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Calling for a compromise, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on the central legal question in Zubik v. Burwell, which focuses on the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

Here are five things to know about the lawsuit.

1. The lawsuit consolidates seven separate cases in which the challengers claim the ACA's contraceptive mandate violates their religious freedom. The main issue in Zubik v. Burwell is whether the mandate, which requires employer-sponsored health plans to cover contraceptives, and its accommodation violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Under the accommodation, nonprofits that object to covering contraceptives can notify the government which would then mandate the nonprofits' insurers to cover the contraceptives as part of the employee policy but at no charge to the employer.

2. In March, the high court issued an unusual order asking lawyers on both sides for a rebriefing on a possible compromise. According to SCOTUSblog, the call for supplemental briefs indicated the high court seemed to have tentatively accepted the views of both the nonprofit organizations and the government.

3. On Monday, the Supreme Court punted on Zubik v. Burwell, declining to rule on whether the contraceptive mandate substantially burdens religious organizations. The court remanded the cases back to the federal appellate courts.

"Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage,'" the Supreme Court said in its opinion. "We anticipate that the Courts of Appeals will allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them."

4. The justices emphasized in their opinion that they were deciding nothing. "The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases," the opinion said. The justices did make clear, however, that the lower courts should not approve any settlement that does not provide "seamless" contraceptive coverage for women together with the rest of their health coverage, such as special birth control policies for which women pay out of pocket.

5. The Supreme Court's unusual tactic in Zubik v. Burwell indicates the court is exploring all available avenues to avoid 4-to-4 deadlocks, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February, according to The New York Times.

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