5 things to know about the Supreme Court case on birth control being discussed today

Today is a massive day in women’s reproductive rights as the Supreme Court will once again visit the issue of employers covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

The justices will hear oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, the plaintiffs of which include nearly a hundred religious organizations who are challenging the ACA. It’s all pretty complicated, so here is the briefest of explanations on what the Supreme Court will be tackling today:

1. The issue lies between religious and secular groups.

This case intersects religion, law, and birth control. Faith-based groups take issue with the ACA’s mandate that birth control be provided for free in health plans as preventative care. As the New York Times explains, the ACA exempts houses of worship, such as churches that may object to the use of contraception, but it does not apply religiously-affiliated nonprofits like hospitals and schools.

The latter organizations claim that the law violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), which prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government demonstrates “a compelling governmental interest. . . and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”


2. There is an accommodation for opponents of the law.

There is a work-around for companies that owned by people who object to covering birth control in their health plans. “Anyone who has a religious objection. . . doesn’t have to pay for, refer, doesn’t have to organize, doesn’t have to accommodate that contraception coverage for his or her employees,” former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told NPR. “What they are required to do is provide notification to the government or their insurer that they are opting out. That’s it.”

The government then works with the insurer to make no-cost birth control available to employees. However, religious groups still object to this accommodation. “The religious burden is what [opting out[ signifies, and the fact that the government would, you know, be inserting services that we object to into our plan, and it would still carry our name,” Sister Constance Veit of Little Sisters of the Poor told NPR. (Little Sisters of the Poor operates nursing homes around the country, according to the Times.) In other words: They don’t want their employees to have access to free birth control at all, regardless of their role in it.


3. The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia complicates the whole shebang.

Eight justices will be hearing the case after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month. The challengers of the law need five votes to win; this could prove difficult without Scalia, who was known for being the most outspoken member of the Supreme Court’s conservatives. As NPR explains, in 2014, the justices were divided 5-4 in favor of allowing some businesses with deeply held religious beliefs to refuse to pay for contraceptives and Scalia was in the majority. Without him, the court is evenly split between liberal and conservative justices, 4-4.

4. This is the fourth time the Affordable Care Act has been revisited in the Supreme Court in six years.

The law was introduced on this day in 2010 and today is far from the first time it’s been challenged.

5. Part of the controversy stems from the belief that contraception is the same as abortion.

The Affordable Care Act extends to any preventative reproductive health care prescribed by a doctor, including emergency contraceptives like the morning after pill. Therefore, some opponents believe that the ACA is encouraging abortion. Others disagree, pointing out that the emergency contraceptives don’t terminate an existing pregnancy, but rather prevent one from happening. While the Supreme Court is arguing over the interpretation of laws, this disagreement about women’s reproductive rights underscores the debate.