The Supreme Court today ducked ruling on the merits of a religious liberty case that pitted the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic nuns who care for the indigent elderly, against the Obama administration. The Court simply sent the issue back to the lower courts and asked the courts and all parties to come up with a compromise.

As such, it is a victory–ever how temporary–for religious liberty, one of the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. At issue is whether the federal government has the right to force the nuns and other religious organizations to provide coverage for birth control (including abortion-inducing drugs) that they say is morally abhorrent and against the tenets of their faith.

Veteran Supreme Court watcher Lyle Denniston described the decision this way:

One reading of Monday’s developments was that the Court, now functioning with eight Justices, was having difficulty composing a majority in support of a definite decision on the legal questions.  Thus, what emerged had all of the appearance of a compromise meant to help generate majority support among the Justices.  With this approach, the Court both achieved the practical results of letting the government go forward to provide the contraceptive benefits and freeing the non-profits of any risk of penalties, even though neither side has any idea — at present — what the ultimate legal outcome will be and, therefore, what their legal rights actually are under the mandate.

It also means that–at least for the time being–the nuns won't have to chose between violating their consciences and continuing their mission of providing shelter and comfort for elderly people at the end of their lives and with nowhere else to turn. The Little Sisters were facing ruinous fines for everyday they were in violation of what has become known as the HHS contraceptive mandate.

The Becket Fund, which represented the Little Sisters, is pleased with this result::

"We are very encouraged by the Court's decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters. The Court has recognized that the government changed its position," Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. "It is crucial that the Justices unanimously ordered the government not to impose these fines and indicated that the government doesn't need any notice to figure out what should now be obvious — the Little Sisters respectfully object. There is still work to be done, but today's decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court." 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, though, said the administration was “gratified” by the decision, arguing that it ensures millions of woman will have access to health care. 

Just for the record, the Little Sisters of the Poor don't employ "millions" of women who are of childbearing age. The administration could at any moment in this process have given the nuns an out that did not make them complicit and gotten on with providing contraceptive coverage.  

Instead, the administration engaged in a game of chicken with the nuns, trying to force them to bend their consciences to the administration's will. The administration required them to sign a document that they say would have made them complicit in what they regard an objective moral evil. This was an unnecessary exercise, which seems designed to show those with religious scruples that the government ultimately defines an individual citizen's religous conscience.   

Ed Morrissey Hot Air is onto what the administration was up to:

HHS and the Obama administration didn’t offer this kind of compromise until the Supreme Court’s oral arguments seemed to suggest that the court took a dim view of their argument. It shows that the federal government’s desire all along was to wear down their critics through expensive and lengthy litigation. When that strategy ran out, the Obama administration suddenly got flexible.

So this isn’t a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs as much as it is a signal that the road has run out for pushing nuns, priests, and ministers to pay for contraception, or to certify contraception coverage for those they employ. Given the non-issue that access to contraception is in the US, a rational decision on the lack of compelling interest by the Supreme Court would have been the best outcome. Considering the status of the court today, this may have been the best realistic outcome.

This ruling also dramatizes the significance of who will fill the late Justice Scalia's seat.

If Justice Scalia were still on the Court, the nuns might well have won outright; if Merrick Garland were on the Court, the cause of religious liberty might have lost outright.

Morrissey argues that the 4-4 split on the Court in this matter "may have proven more productive than critics of the GOP’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination have assumed."