In a decision that is sure to frustrate activists on both the left and right, the Supreme Court announced Monday that it will not make a ruling on the challenge to the contraception mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
Instead, the court released a unanimous opinion instructing lower courts to explore the possibility of a compromise on the issue.
The unusual move is almost certainly prompted by the fact that, with only eight members due to the vacancy left by the death in February of former Justice Antonin Scalia, the court was positioned for a deadlock. In the case of a tie vote, the opinions of the lower courts would stand anyway.
The opinion released Monday vacated the rulings of the lower courts, thereby forcing them to review the case and seek potential compromises between the Obama administration and the religious groups that are suing to overturn the contraception mandate.
The lawsuit, Zubik v. Burwell, was the latest in a string of legal challenges to the provision of the PPACA that requires employer health care plans to include coverage of a variety of birth control to employees free of charge.
A previous decision in 2014 to a suit brought by Hobby Lobby, the national crafts chain, forced the government to set up a system to accommodate business owners with religious objections to certain contraceptives. The feds dealt with that matter with a compromise in which employers that objected to paying for birth control would not technically pay for it, but the insurer providing the coverage would.
In the most recent lawsuit, religious groups argued that being forced to file paperwork and request exemption from the mandate constituted an unconstitutional burden on the practice of their religious beliefs.
It’s far from clear what compromises the various lower courts that have ruled on the matter will work out with the plaintiffs, or whether compromises will be possible at all.
For conservatives, particularly those who have been reluctant to embrace Donald Trump as the GOP nominee, the case offers a reason to support the bombastic billionaire. Although he is far from a committed social conservative, Trump has promised to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice to fill the current vacancy.