WASHINGTON —  In a potentially groundbreaking decision, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified a federal court ruling against the University of Notre Dame on the HHS contraception mandate and sent it back for reconsideration by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The university is “gratified” by the decision, said its vice president of public affairs and communications, Paul Browne. Notre Dame officials had requested the case be remanded by the court in light of the Hobby Lobby decision last June.

“Notre Dame continues to challenge the federal mandate as an infringement on our fundamental right to the free exercise of our Catholic faith,” Browne said.

Notre Dame is one of well over 100 nonprofit institutions to sue the federal government over a mandate requiring that employers provide health-care plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.

After the initial mandate was announced, hundreds of organizations, churches and business across the country voiced their religious objection. The government subsequently developed an “accommodation,” under which nonprofit employers who religiously objected to offering such coverage could send a notice of objection to a third party, which would then offer the coverage.

Notre Dame and other plaintiffs have argued that they would still be violating their religious convictions by cooperating in such a way with the contraception coverage, which they believe to be immoral.

The university’s request for an injunction offering protection from the mandate was initially denied, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling last February. The university then appealed its case to the Supreme Court.  

The contraception mandate “violated our religious beliefs by requiring Notre Dame’s participation in a regulatory scheme to provide abortion-inducing products, contraceptives and sterilization,” Browne stated.

Last June, the Supreme Court issued a major ruling on the contraception mandate, saying that the federal regulation cannot be applied to “closely held corporations” — including arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby — if their owners have religious objections to it.

Now, the Supreme Court is instructing the appeals court to reconsider Notre Dame's case, taking into account the Hobby Lobby ruling in support of religious freedom.

Some observers said the court’s Monday decision could foreshadow this religious-freedom protection being reinforced more broadly for other religious employers as well.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which supported the university in a “friend of the court” brief, called Monday’s ruling “a major blow” to the mandate and a “strong signal” that the court will uphold the religious freedom of institutions like Notre Dame in similar cases.

The Becket Fund is also representing EWTN in its legal challenge to the HHS mandate. The Register is a service of EWTN.

The ruling is all the more important because the university was the only nonprofit organization without legal protection from the mandate, the Becket Fund added. The government was using the 7th Circuit’s denial of an injunction to argue against other nonprofit organizations that were suing, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor.