WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a bid by President Donald Trump's administration to implement federal rules allowing employers to obtain religious exemptions from an Obamacare requirement that health insurance that they provide to employees covers women's birth control.
At issue is a challenge by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the administration's 2018 rule that permits broad religious and moral exemptions to the contraception mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, and expands accommodations already allowed.
The administration has asked the Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees, to reverse a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court blocking the rule.
The administration is joined in the litigation by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns that is one of the groups seeking an exemption for its employees.
Rules implemented under Trump's Democratic predecessor Barack Obama exempted religious entities from the mandate and a further accommodation was created for religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, which some groups including the Little Sisters of the Poor objected to as not going far enough.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a one-hour argument by teleconference, its third this week as the justices continue a new format prompted by health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The contraceptive mandate under the law, which was signed by Obama in 2010 and has faced Republican efforts to repeal it ever since, requires that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for birth control with no co-payment. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage.
The blocked Trump rule would allow 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 administration exemption also would be available for religiously affiliated universities that provide health insurance to students.
The legal question is 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 allows people to press religious claims against the federal government.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld a nationwide injunction issued by a district court judge in the lawsuit that blocked implementation of the exemptions.
The justices addressed the question of religious accommodations to the Obamacare contraception mandate once before. In 2016, they sidestepped a decision on previous rules issued under Obama, sending the dispute back to lower courts.