Supreme Court hears arguments on religious exemption for birth control coverage

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Wednesday marked a historic day, as a Philadelphia-based case went before the United States Supreme Court — via phone, with one justice in a hospital bed. 

The hearing, which was broadcast by livestream, focused on whether the federal government can mandate health insurance coverage decisions.

The Philly-based Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious institute for women, want to be exempt from providing birth control to employees, as outlined in the Affordable Care Act.

Their attorney, Paul Clement with Becket Law — which specializes in religious freedom cases — argued on their behalf to the Supreme Court.

“Mr. Clement, your client, the Little Sisters, do not object to their employees having coverage for contraceptive services, right?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Correct,” Clement replied. “They don’t have any objection if their employees receive those services from some other means. Their objection, essentially, is to having their plans hijacked and being forced to provide those services to their own plan, and their plan infrastructure.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro — along with New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and 20 other states — stepped in and sued, claiming an 2017 exemption rule created by President Donald Trump is unconstitutional because it allows employers to pick and choose coverage.

“There has to be a balance of the religious interest of an organization and the needs of an employee,” argued Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer, “and we have found that delicate balance for years in this country. But this rule put forth by the Trump administration tilts that balance away from women and puts the power in the hands of their bosses.”

“They are saying religious accommodations, like the one that we got, are the best of our traditions,” added Adele Keim, another attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor, “and the federal government was right to exempt us.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg heard the case from a Maryland hospital bed while recovering from a non-surgical treatment for an infection.

“I just remain troubled in the complete abandonment of the … interest in saving women costs,” said Ginsburg.

The justices could issue an opinion as soon as next month.