The Supreme Court declined Monday to rule on whether the Obama administration infringed on the rights of faith-based groups, including a global order of Roman Catholic nuns with U.S. headquarters in Baltimore County, by requiring them to arrange for birth control coverage for their employees.

Instead, the justices asked lower federal courts to seek a compromise on several combined cases, including one filed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, of Catonsville.


In an unsigned, unanimous opinion, they suggested that briefs filed by the parties following oral arguments in late March indicated the groups and the government could reach a compromise that would let employees receive free birth control coverage without infringing on the organizations' religious beliefs.

Specifics of that compromise, however, were not immediately clear.

"Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties," the court wrote, "the parties ... should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'"

The justices are wresting with how to address controversial issues in the absence of the late Antonin Scalia, whose death in February has left them divided evenly between conservatives and liberals.

They stressed that they were not offering a decision on the underlying questions presented by the case — including whether the government overstepped its constitutional bounds by requiring birth control coverage as part of its 2010 Affordable Care Act.

"The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases," they wrote. "In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners' religious exercise has been substantially burdened."

Little Sisters of the Poor runs homes for the elderly and the poor around the country. The organization, which employs about 50 lay workers, filed its original lawsuit in 2013 and won a temporary reprieve from the coverage requirement from the Supreme Court in early 2014.

Attorneys for the group described Monday's opinion as a victory.

"This is a game-changer," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Washington-based law firm representing the Little Sisters. "The court has accepted the government's concession that it can get drugs to people without using the Little Sisters."

A White House spokesman said the administration also views the opinion as a win.

"It will allow millions of women across the country to continue to get the health care coverage that they need," press secretary Josh Earnest said. "So this obviously is an outcome that we're pleased to see."

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire is mother provincial for the Little Sisters.

"All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself," she said in a statement.

After oral arguments in March, the order said it always believed there was a chance for compromise.


"The Little Sisters of the Poor have never sought to prevent the government from providing these services, but have simply asked that the government pick a way that doesn't force them to deliver services — like the week-after pill — that violate their faith," the order said then.

At issue are the regulations the administration devised to make sure that religious groups do not have to pay for or arrange the provision of contraceptives, which violate Catholic teaching, while ensuring that women covered under their health plans still can obtain birth control.

Under the Affordable Care Act, contraception is among a range of preventive services that must be provided at no extra charge. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread faith are exempt from the birth-control requirement.

Other faith-affiliated groups that oppose some or all contraception may tell the government in writing or their insurers that they object. Under the accommodation set by the administration, those insurers may then seek reimbursement directly from the government for the cost of covering contraception.

In 2014, the justices divided 5-4, with Scalia in the majority, to allow some "closely held" businesses with religious objections to refuse to pay for contraceptives for women. That case involved the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and other companies that said their rights were being violated under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Little Sisters and other nonprofit groups invoked the same law in asking that the government find a way that does not involve them or their insurers in providing birth control to women covered by their health plans.

"It is disgraceful that the administration has spent years trying to bully the Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life, and the other plaintiffs in these cases, to force compliance with an anti-life agenda," said Clarke D. Forsythe, senior counsel for the national anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life.

"Under the directives of the Supreme Court's decision ... today, the lower courts should put a stop to this unconstitutional and unconscionable scheme," he said.