In a surprise Monday move the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will punt the latest challenge brought by religiously affiliated nonprofit groups to the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate, by sending the case back to lower courts.
The challenge, known as Zubik v. Burwell, was a consolidation of cases brought by religious nonprofits, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity of nuns, who on religious grounds objected having to pay for — or indirectly allow, such as the case for the nuns may be — birth control and other reproductive coverage in their health plans.
According to the unanimous ruling, the justices wrote they were not deciding the case on the merits but instead sent the case back down to the lower courts for opposing parties to work out a compromise as both the government and the petitioners confirmed in supplemental briefings that doing so is “feasible.”
“The Court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the decision said. “In particular, the Court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the Government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”
For now, the decision punts a high-profile dispute over the so-called ‘contraceptive mandate’ at the height of a tumultuous election year as the court is dealing with a vacancy following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
This was the fourth time SCOTUS has heard a challenge to President Barack Obama‘s signature legislation, and the second case challenging the contraception mandate. In 2014, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby that objected to providing certain contraceptives to their employees.