Justices Give Obama Administration a Mulligan in Little Sisters Case

Little Sisters of the Poor in front of Supreme CourtWhile the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue a landmark Hobby Lobby-like victory for religious freedom this week, it did perhaps the next best thing for the Little Sisters of the Poor and fellow religious nonprofits threatened by the heavy hand of the executive branch. In a unanimous decision, the justices vacated lower court rulings against their religious freedom and ordered reconsideration of their cases. Moreover, they ruled that the Obama administration, which wishes to enforce its mandate that all new health plans cover abortion-inducing drugs with the threat of massive and crippling fines, “may not impose taxes or penalties” on these religious nonprofits for insisting on their religious objections.  

NRB member Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing several Christian universities that are party to this consolidated proceeding, and Priests for Life, another NRB member, is also a party. Responding to this ruling, ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said, “The Supreme Court was right to protect the Christian colleges and other groups from having to pay fines or fill out forms authorizing the objectionable coverage. The government has many other ways to ensure women are able to obtain these drugs without forcing people of faith to participate in acts that violate their deepest convictions.”

In what several media outlets have chosen to portray as a “punt,” the Supreme Court effectively gave the religious nonprofits immediate relief and the Obama administration a mulligan. It is possible there was a division on the court on lines similar to the 5-4 Hobby Lobby ruling (though we should not forget that all of these justices ruled against the executive branch’s overreach in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor religious liberty decision). However, since a 4-4 split verdict on the merits of the cases would have left negative lower court rulings in place, apparently a majority of the justices did not wish to take that path at this point. Rather, the justices asserted that their order for reconsideration of the case should give the opposing parties “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise.” 

It is notable that in an interview with Buzzfeed shortly after the ruling, President Obama said, “My suspicion is if we had nine Supreme Court justices instead of eight, there might have been a different outcome.” We cannot know for sure, but he may well be right.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: May 19, 2016

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