In the latest skirmish over religious objections to providing
government-mandated contraception, the four-sentence court order was
a partial victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a
Baltimore-based order of nuns that runs nursing homes, and
Illinois-based Christian Brothers Services, which manages healthcare
plans for Catholic groups.
The unusually worded order by the court imposed a requirement on the
groups before they can claim the exemption. First, they must send
written notification to the Department of Health and Human Services
saying they object to the contraception mandate.
The court's decision means that, as long as the groups send the
letters, they are effectively exempt while litigation continues in
lower courts, putting off for now any conclusive decision on this
latest legal test of Obamacare, as the president's 2010 Affordable
Care Act has become known.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the groups,
hailed the court's order.
"We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order
protecting the Little Sisters," attorney Mark Rienzi said in a
statement. "The government has lots of ways to deliver
contraceptives to people. It doesn't need to force nuns to
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department stressed in an email
to Reuters that the order was not final. "This injunction applies
only to the plaintiffs and is not a ruling on the merits of their
case. And plaintiffs have always been eligible for an accommodation
from the contraceptive coverage requirement."
"PAPERWORK, NOT RELIGIOUS LIBERTY"
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of
America, which supports the mandate, said in a statement the case
focused only on the way groups like the Little Sisters can claim an
exemption. "This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty,"
Dozens of other Catholic groups are involved in similar litigation,
and most have won temporary injunctions. So far, no federal appeals
court has ruled on the merits of the groups' claims, according to
the Becket Fund.
The organizations have accused the federal government of forcing
them to support contraception and sterilization in violation of
their religious beliefs, or face steep fines.
The Little Sisters lawsuit was filed also on behalf of hundreds of
other groups that obtain benefits via Christian Brothers Services,
although that has not been certified as a class-action at this
stage. The Becket Fund said it would also benefit from the court's
The unsigned Supreme Court order said it "should not be construed as
an expression of the court's views on the merits."
[to top of second column]
The Obamacare law requires employers to provide health insurance
policies that cover preventive services for women, including
contraception and sterilization.
The act makes an exception for religious institutions such as houses
of worship that mainly serve and employ members of their own faith,
but not for schools, hospitals and charitable organizations that
employ people of all faiths.
As a compromise, the administration agreed to an accommodation for
non-profits affiliated with religious entities that was finalized in
July. But the Little Sisters and other Catholic groups said the
compromise process still violated their religious rights.
In court filings, the government had conceded it could not enforce
the mandate against the Little Sisters in any case because of the
nature of their health-care plan.
A federal judge in Colorado, William Martinez, denied the
plaintiffs' request for an injunction on December 27. The
Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed suit on
December 31, prompting a last-minute plea to the Supreme Court.
Although Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction on
December 31, the court then spent more than three weeks weighing how
In separate cases, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral
arguments in March on whether for-profit corporations can object to
the contraception mandate on religious grounds.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Gunna
Dickson, Toni Reinhold)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.