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Washington (AFP) - The United States Supreme Court on Monday overturned a court judgment in favor of the Obama administration which barred a Catholic university from refusing to pay for contraception for employees on religious grounds.
The Supreme Court had already ruled in favor last year of a Christian-owned company, Hobby Lobby, which had sought to avoid paying for worker healthcare plans which included contraception.
Monday's ruling overturned a judgment against the University of Notre Dame, a prominent Catholic college, which had also refused to fund contraception, a mandatory provision under President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
The judgment was the only one of its kind in the United States forcing a religious organization to support certain kinds of contraceptives, such as the morning after pill.
But in a brief decision issued Monday, the highest US court overturned the earlier ruling, sending the case back to a federal court of appeal and ordering it to reconsider in light of the June 2014 decision.
Monday's ruling reflected the position of the Supreme Court last year, when the nine justices, five of whom are conservative, ruled that freedom of religion ought to apply to businesses as well as individuals, meaning an employer should not be compelled to pay for contraception if it violated his or her religious beliefes.
"This is a major blow to the federal government's contraception mandate. For the past year, the Notre Dame decision has been the centerpiece of the government's effort to force religious ministries to violate their beliefs or pay fines to the IRS," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief in the case.
"As with the Supreme Court's decisions in Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby, this is a strong signal that the Supreme Court will ultimately reject the government's narrow view of religious liberty.
Monday's ruling is the latest instance of the Supreme Court making a ruling related to Obama's healthcare reforms.
Last week the justices debated a case which asks whether some seven million people who signed up for Obamacare via the government's website are actually entitled to tax subsidies that make the coverage affordable. Unlike the contraception case, their decision could strike down the law.
A decision is expected before the end of June.