An evolving Supreme Court tackles constitutional questions: Zubik v. Burwell

For the past few months, the Supreme Court has faced a classic religious freedom versus bodily autonomy case. Back in 2010, the Obama Administration mandated free birth control under the Affordable Care Act. As a result, Hobby Lobby, a retail chain of arts and crafts stores, took its case to the Supreme Court in 2014, saying its religious beliefs did not allow it to provide contraception to its employees. At the time, the Court ruled with the company, declaring that companies could be exempt from providing contraceptive care if it was against their beliefs.

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graphic by Keri Zhang

In 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services worked with Obamacare to include a set of regulations that allowed free contraception to workers through their health insurance. If a company disagreed with contraception on religious grounds they could file paperwork refusing to distribute contraceptives. However, this still involved them in the process of supplying birth control, thereby conflicting with their beliefs. The government said that employees may sign up for a separate plan through their respective insurers, and then could receive coverage for contraceptive services.

Many religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Washington and Pittsburgh and the Little Sisters of the Poor, have taken more issues up with the Supreme Court, stating that they also wished for the government to deal with arranging contraceptive options, rather than having the employers be the middleman to decide and write off on it. However, the Court did not make a ruling, and they simply passed the question back to lower courts.

Yet the Court ruled in a dead tie on May 17, due to the split between liberal and conservative justices. With this decision, the Court sent numerous cases back down to the lower courts, indicating that they wished to see if the Obama Administration, as well as the non-profits, could work together to sort the issue out before getting an official decision from the Court.

With the 4–4 split, the justices could not come up with a distinct decision within themselves, so they sent the case back down to see if the parties in question would come together to solve the problem. Since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, the division between the liberal and conservative justices has created many unresolved rulings.

What this case demonstrates is that  division within the Court has relegated it to more of a mediator of constitutional questions rather than an answerer. The justices are supposed to be the final word on the issues of the day;  a continued split hinders that ability.

1 Response

  1. Brent ferguson says:

    Very enlightened article, keep at it ,look out Murdochs.

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