The US Supreme Court handed a temporary victory Friday to a group of Roman Catholic nuns who object to being forced to provide their employees with certain contraceptives under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, had complained that some of the contraceptive methods violated their religious beliefs. Their lawyers asked a federal judge to block enforcement of the new law pending ongoing litigation challenging the ACA’s contraceptive mandate on religious grounds.
The judge refused to issue an injunction, and so did a panel of the federal appeals court in Denver.
The Little Sisters then took their eleventh-hour request to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who granted a temporary injunction on New Year’s Eve that would protect the nuns from significant fines when the ACA took effect on Jan. 1.
In her brief order, Justice Sotomayor also called for the Obama administration to file a brief setting out its position in the case.
The brief was filed in the first week of January, but nothing emerged from Justice Sotomayor or the court – until Friday afternoon.
In a brief order, the justices enjoined the government from enforcing the challenged contraceptive provisions against the nuns and Christian Brothers Services, a Catholic benefits provider.
“We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order protecting the Little Sisters,” Mark Rienzi, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement.
“The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people – it doesn’t need to force nuns to participate,” said Mr. Rienzi, who is representing the Little Sisters in the case.
The court said the nuns would have to inform the Secretary of Health and Human Services in writing that they are a non-profit religious organization and that they object to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees through their work-based health plan.
The court said the injunction would remain in place pending final disposition of the Little Sisters lawsuit in the Denver-based Tenth US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court added that the Little Sisters were not required to use the procedure set up by the government as an accommodation for religious groups.
Under that accommodation, the objecting organization was required to certify that they were objecting on religious grounds to providing the required contraceptives to all their employees. The certification would also serve to authorize a third-party health plan administrator to take on the role of providing the required contraceptives in lieu of the Little Sisters doing it.
The accommodation was designed to create an arms-length buffer to avoid directly involving the Little Sisters in the provision of offensive contraceptives.
Lawyers for the Little Sisters objected that the accommodation did not effectively insulate the nuns from the mandated contraceptives. Instead, they were still entangled in providing birth-control services that they consider immoral.
It does so, they argued, by requiring the Little Sisters to authorize someone else to take those same actions.
Government lawyers disagreed. They insist that the accommodation effectively neutralized any religious objections.
The issue before the court was not whether the accommodation violates religious protections. It was merely whether the high court should block enforcement of the law while the Little Sisters continued to press their case in the courts.
In releasing its order, the court noted that the justices reached their decision to issue the injunction “based on all the circumstances of the case.” The order notes that the action “should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits [of the broader case].”
The high court is scheduled to hear two similar challenges to the ACA’s contraception mandate. Those cases are set for argument on March 25 and involve for-profit companies whose owners claim that some of the required contraceptive methods under the ACA violate their religious beliefs.
In contrast to for-profit corporations, the Little Sisters are a non-profit group whose work is intimately involved in the day-to-day work of caring for the poor and elderly in accord with Roman Catholic principles.
The Little Sisters operate homes for 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries. The lawsuits were filed on behalf of the groups’ homes in Denver and Baltimore.