The U.S. Supreme Court backed out of a divisive clash involving religious groups that object to contraceptive coverage under the ACA, issuing a compromise decision that said the two sides might be able to work out their differences.

Releasing an unsigned, seven-paragraph opinion in one of its most closely watched disputes, the court said it “expresses no view on the merits of the cases" and sent them back to federal appeals courts around the country. The opinion pointed the Obama administration and suing religious groups to an unusual proposal the justices floated in March after arguments suggested a possible 4-4 deadlock.

The decision is the clearest indication yet of the difficulties posed to the court by the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 13 death. With Senate Republicans refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, the vacancy may extend through the November election.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

At issue was the Obama administration’s plan for accommodating religious groups that don’t want to provide birth control coverage for employees or students. The administration offered to give objecting groups two options: They could shift responsibility onto their insurer by providing it with a “self-certification” form, or they could notify the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of their objection and provide contact information for their insurer.

The religious groups, which consider some forms of contraception to be the same as abortion, say they shouldn’t have to play even the limited role envisioned by the administration.

In the court’s March 29 proposal, the justices asked the two sides to consider an alternative approach under which the objecting groups wouldn’t have to provide any notice at all.

Although neither side fully embraced that proposal, the court’s decision Monday said the justices saw reason for optimism.

"Both petitioners and the government now confirm that such an option is feasible," the court said.

The lead case is Zubik v. Burwell, 14-1418.

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