The Little Sisters of the Poor are happy; headline writers (Cue: audible sigh) are not

If there is anything in the world that, in my experience, mainstream news editors hate it's when stories that they are not all that interested in go on and on and on and on without a clear resolution. Like it or not, many of these stories have to do with religion.

Right now, in newsrooms across this complex land of ours, there are editors saying: "What? The United Methodists STILL haven't made up their *%^#*)@ minds on ordaining gay people?" (Cue: audible sigh.) 

I used to call the news desk from national church conventions -- left and right -- in the 1980s and editors would say, "Look, I don't have time for all those details. Just tell me who won."

The goal is to write that final headline that Will. Make. This. Stuff. Go. Away.

This brings me, of course, to the Little Sisters of the Poor and the ongoing efforts by the White House to draw a bright line -- in this case a line made of condoms and birth-control pills -- between freedom of worship (think religious sanctuaries) and the free exercise of religion beliefs (think doctrinally defined charities, parachurch groups and schools). 

You can just sense the frustration at The Washington Post as the U.S. Supreme Court pointedly refused to issue a ruling for or against the religious ministries and schools that have been fighting, fighting and fighting against the Health and Human Services mandates requiring them to cooperate in slipping contraceptives and other Sexual Revolution services into their health insurance plans. 

You want excitement in a headline? Well, this isn't it: "Supreme Court sends Obamacare contraception case back to lower courts." I no longer work in Washington, D.C., so I don't know where this story is located in today's dead-tree-pulp newspaper, but just try to find this important religious-liberty story on the front page of the Post website. There are dozens of stories promoted there, but this isn't one of them.

So who won?

The court was very clear that it didn't want to say. And why is that? I found this passage rather interesting, in the Post report. Once again, you can sense the frustration here.

The unsigned and unanimous three-page decision was unusual -- and largely a punt by a court equally divided along ideological lines after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

And there is the big unanswered question: What are the ideological lines, in this case? Is this a dispute over the First Amendment and the free-exercise of religion? Is the essential argument over whether it is appropriate for the government to entangle itself in disputes over what forms of ministry deserve full First Amendment protection and what forms of ministry do not? 

At this point, it is clear that some justices believe that a compromise is possible that pleases the Little Sisters of the Poor. If that is the case, then the sisters won. At this point, are the White House wonks happy about needing to compromise -- again?

Ah, but the whole point of the non-decision Supreme Court decision was to avoid the creation of "Winner!" headlines. The Post report notes (and you can hear editors sighing between the lines):

The contraceptive case was supposed to have been one of the big ones this term. It asked how to make good on Obamacare’s promise that women will receive the health-care coverage they are entitled to when they work for religiously affiliated organizations that believe providing the coverage implicates them in sin.
The next steps are unclear, although the opinion revives challenges to the law filed all across the country and seems to envision some sort of negotiation between the objecting organizations and the administration.

Then, at the end of the story, you have your basic, journalistic two-hands-not-clapping comparison language:

On the one hand, the decision vacated a series of lower-court rulings that said the Obama administration had done enough to accommodate the objections of religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, charities and universities. Eight of nine appeals courts that considered the issue ruled for the administration.
For the challengers, vacating those decisions was key. “I think anyone would recognize that as a win,” said Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a charity of nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor.
On the other hand, the court ruled that “nothing in this opinion, or in the opinions or orders of the courts below, is to affect the ability of the government to ensure that women covered by petitioners’ health plans obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives.”

And there is the other big question that is not addressed in the story. The key is that women covered by these health-care plans must be even to "obtain, without cost" (even if they have signed lifestyle covenants promising to honor the doctrines of their ministry or school) the contraceptives and services at the heart of this dispute.

"Obtain"? Obtain from what institution? The government or the ministry or school's health-care provider? That has been the question all along. Will the government help them, well, "sin" or could the government find a way to force religious ministries to cooperate in helping their own employees and/or students "sin"?

The New York Times report -- which avoided any "victory" quotes from religious groups -- also punted on that same point. Where will these services come from?

“Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand 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 court said, quoting from a brief filed by the government.
The Supreme Court urged the lower courts to “allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.”
The justices emphasized that they were deciding nothing.
“The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the opinion said. “In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”

This leads to the words that, I guarantee you this, news editors did not want to hear about this important religious-liberty story.

Stay tuned.

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