Less than one week after hearing oral arguments on seven consolidated cases in which non-profit organizations challenged the opt-out process for religious organizations opposing the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate, the United States Supreme Court took the unusual action of ordering the lawyers on both sides to brief additional issues. The Court’s Order asked the attorneys to address whether contraceptives could be provided to employees of objecting religious nonprofits without requiring them to comply with the current ACA opt-out process. See Order, March 29, 2016. The opt-out process — outlined in final regulations — requires religious nonprofits (and for-profit companies with religious objections) to submit a form with their insurer or the government stating their objection to providing contraceptive coverage. See Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services, Final Regulation, July 14, 2015.
The Order proposes an example of a compromise solution which would allow the nonprofit to inform their insurance company of their objection to providing contraception coverage as part of the process of contracting for the organization’s health insurance. Under this scenario, not only would the nonprofit have no obligation to provide or pay for contraceptive coverage (as is already permitted under the ACA), but they would not be required to provide any form of opt-out notice to the government or their employees. The Court further suggests that the insurance company then would be responsible for notifying the employees of the nonprofit that cost-free contraceptive coverage would be provided by the insurer and would be completely separate from the objecting nonprofit organization’s health plan.
If the Court is deadlocked in a 4 to 4 vote on the nonprofit contraceptive cases, the lower court rulings would stand and religious nonprofits would be required to comply with the opt-out notice requirements. The issuance of this highly unusual Order suggests that in the face of a potential tie vote on these cases, the Court is seeking an extra-judicial compromise that would permit religious nonprofits to avoid any type of notice requirement.
The Court established tight filing deadlines – with the first briefs due on April 12, and reply briefs due on April 20. No additional hearings on the cases have been scheduled.