This Article is From Mar 23, 2016

Split US Supreme Court Weighs Key Birth Control Case

Split US Supreme Court Weighs Key Birth Control Case

Justices hearing arguments in a controversial case involving Obamacare and birth control. (Representational Image)

Washington, United States: Religious and secular views on women's rights over their bodies take center stage at the US Supreme Court today, with the justices hearing arguments in a controversial case involving Obamacare and birth control.

The hearing, over seven combined lawsuits, marks the fourth time in as many years that the highest court in the land has taken up a challenge to President Barack Obama's health care law.

The impact of late conservative justice Antonin Scalia's death, and Senate Republicans' refusal to vote on a replacement until Obama leaves office next year, will face another major test in the case, with a court now evenly split along ideological lines.

A 4-4 tie between liberal and conservative justices would leave lower court rulings in effect and put off resolution of an issue with important ramifications on women's lives for another year or more.

The outcome in the case of a tie would be further complicated because federal appeals courts disagreed when they heard the cases.

At the nub of the cases is the Affordable Health Care Act's requirement that employer health plans provide free contraceptive coverage to employees.

The act, popularly known as Obamacare, granted an exemption to houses of worship like churches, mosques and synagogues, but not to non-profit groups such as religiously-affiliated schools, colleges, hospitals or charities.

Those groups were instead given a way to opt out by notifying the government or their insurer of their refusal to provide coverage.
The government then simply makes sure that employees can freely access contraception.

But some non-profits argue that this arrangement still burdens their free exercise of religion, which is banned under a federal law.

'Substantial Burden' Test'

When it agreed in November to hear the case, the Supreme Court denied part of the challenge to the Obamacare contraception mandate, narrowing its focus on whether the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under the 1993 federal law, the government cannot "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion unless it is the least restrictive means to advance the government's interest.

In a landmark 2014 decision in a similar case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that closely held, for-profit corporations can deny contraceptive coverage to employees for religious reasons.

Court watchers are eager to see whether the justices will rule differently this time.

A decision is not expected until late June.

The eight justices currently serving on the bench also heard its most important abortion case in a generation earlier this month and appeared sharply divided.

With the official mourning period over for Scalia, all justices but Chief Justice John Roberts will take new seats on the bench.

Scalia, a dominant conservative on the bench, had been the most senior justice serving on the bench.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)