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'The question is, will the Court sanction the use of religion to discriminate?' wonders an American Civil Liberties Union legal expert. (Photo: Planned Parenthood/Twitter)

'Hands Off My Birth Control': Activists Demand US Supreme Court Protect Women's Health

'Denying any woman the healthcare she needs and is guaranteed by law is discrimination, plain and simple'

Nika Knight, staff writer

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Wednesday in Zubik v. Burwell, a reproductive rights case with high stakes and implications "far beyond the realm of reproductive healthcare," as ProPublica observed.

In a case reminiscent of Hobby Lobby's successful suit that permitted the for-profit corporation to refuse its employees healthcare coverage for birth control, in Zubik v. Burwell religious organizations argue that allowing their female employees to access birth control—even birth control provided by a third party—violates their religious rights.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) permits religious groups to opt-out of the healthcare law's requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover birth control. All that religious organizations need to do to opt-out is to fill out a simple form.

And yet in Zubik v. Burwell the religious groups "claim that the requirement to complete a one-page form stating their objection to birth control coverage is an impermissible burden on their religious beliefs," noted the Center for Reproductive Rights in a statement.

"Access to affordable contraception is essential to women’s equality and economic security. Denying any woman the health care she needs and is guaranteed by law is discrimination, plain and simple," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "The burdens a woman faces when she is denied access to affordable contraception and reproductive health care vastly outweigh the negligible task of filling out a one-page form."

In an amicus brief (pdf) filed on behalf of the federal government by the Center for Reproductive Rights, international law experts argue that a decision in favor of the religious non-profits will make the United States an "international outlier."

"International authorities have long noted the critical importance of access to contraception," the brief observes.

Indeed, the argument presented in Zubik v. Burwell has "grave implications for the constitution and for American women," said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deputy legal director Louise Melling in a press statement. "The question is, will the Court sanction the use of religion to discriminate?"

"A ruling in favor of the religious nonprofits would not only undermine key provisions of the ACA; it could also lead to challenges to laws meant to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination," warned Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women's Law Center, in an interview with ProPublica.

The religious non-profits' argument in Zubik v. Burwell marks "an unprecedented challenge to the very process by which a religious objector gets out of complying with the law," Borchelt noted to ProPublica. "This is something we have not seen before."

Reproductive rights activists are rallying outside of the Supreme Court and tweeting their opposition to this latest threat to women's healthcare under the hashtag #HandsOffMyBC.

"I still can't believe both birth control and abortion are before the Supreme Court this term," lamented MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon in a tweet. Activists have noted that this latest threat to women's health comes only three weeks after the Supreme Court heard a case with the potential to"dramatically alter" abortion access nationwide.

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