SCOTUS vacates lower court’s ruling in case over religious freedom

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a summary order in favor of a group of religious organizations challenging a New York state law that required them to provide insurance coverage for abortions to employees, a practice they said violated their beliefs.

According to the Washington Examiner, the high court decided to vacate a lower court’s ruling and remand the case back down to New York’s appeals court for reconsideration, in light of precedent set by a different Supreme Court ruling in a religious liberty case earlier in the year.

The order, in effect, declined to take up the case for oral arguments — Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas would have heard arguments in the case — and instead simply kicked it back down to the state court level to be looked at again.

Fighting for religious freedom

The previous case on the issue, decided in June, was Fulton v. Philadelphia, which centered on the Pennsylvania city’s sudden refusal to do business with a Catholic charity — in violation of a contract — unless the nonprofit went against its own religious beliefs by changing a policy that screened out same-sex couples as prospective foster parents.

The Supreme Court determined that the city’s actions were in violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

It appears that the high court feels the same with regard to the current case, Diocese of Albany v. Emami, which challenges a New York state law mandating that most religious organizations provide abortion coverage to all employees as part of a health insurance package, or risk crippling fines and other punitive measures.

According to the Becket Law firm, one of the legal groups representing a coalition of cross-denominational religious organizations led by the Albany Diocese, the law would force religious groups to actively participate in what they consider to be “grave moral sin,” in clear violation of their “deepest religious convictions.”

SCOTUS order cheered

The firm also argued that the Supreme Court had already set a precedent on this issue by handing down three separate victories for the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who fought back against the Obama administration’s unsuccessful efforts to force them to provide abortion pills and contraceptives to employees.

“New York clearly learned nothing from the federal government’s own attempts to force nuns to pay for contraceptives and is now needlessly threatening charities because they believe in the dignity and humanity of every human person,” Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement.

“Punishing faith groups for ministering to their local communities is cruel and counterproductive,” he added. “We are thankful that the Supreme Court won’t allow the New York Court of Appeals’ bad ruling to be the last word on the right of religious ministries to serve New Yorkers of all faiths.”

The bishop of the Albany Diocese, Rev. Edward Scharfenberger, issued a similar message. “We are gratified and grateful that the Supreme Court has recognized the serious constitutional concerns over New York State’s heavy-handed abortion mandate on religious employers,” Scharfenberger said.

“We are confident that now that the Court has ordered the case remanded for reconsideration in light of last year’s Fulton v. Philadelphia decision, the unconstitutional regulatory action taken by New York State will ultimately be completely overturned as incompatible with our country’s First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty,” the bishop added.

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