The US Supreme Court has thrown out lower-court rulings which required Christian employers to comply with a mandate in President Barack Obama's healthcare law to provide female workers insurance covering birth control.
The court's unanimous action represents at least a short-term victory for the non-profit employers, primarily Roman Catholic organisations, because it tossed out rulings in seven different cases that had endorsed the contraception mandate, forcing the lower courts to reconsider the dispute.
"The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases. In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners' religious exercise has been substantially burdened," the unsigned ruling stated.
In a separate order, the court also sent six other cases on the same issue back to lower courts.
The compromise decision indicated that the court, which is evenly divided with four conservative justices and four liberals following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February, wanted to avoid an even split in the case.
Such a decision would have affirmed the lower-court rulings that favoured the administration but would not have provided a decision to be applied nationwide.
Mark Rienzi, a lawyer for the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns that filed suit against the Obama administration, said he was "very encouraged by the court's decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters".
The justices in previous decisions since 2012 had fended off other major conservative challenges to the Obamacare law, considered President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement.
The dispute before the justices involved seven consolidated cases focusing on whether nonprofit entities that oppose the contraception mandate on religious grounds can object under a 1993 US law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a compromise measure offered by the government.
The justices declined to decide whether the accommodation crafted by the Obama administration in 2013 to ensure that the employees receive contraception coverage violates their employer's religious rights.