By Andrea Billups
BALTIMORE – A group of Catholic nuns celebrated Wednesday the decision by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to issue a stay in a crucial portion of the Obama healthcare law that would have forced religious groups to provide health insurance coverage for birth control and other medications designed to induce abortions.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Baltimore-based order that operates nursing homes for low-income elderly around the country, issued a statement praising the justice’s actions.
“We are grateful for the decision of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granting us a temporary injunction protecting us from the HHS contraceptive mandate,” the nuns said. “We hope and pray that we will receive a favorable outcome in order to continue to serve the elderly of all faiths with the same community support and religious freedom that we have always appreciated.
The sisters were represented in the case by attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which issued its own statement in the case.
“We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order protecting the Little Sisters,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund. “The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people — it doesn’t need to force nuns to participate.”
In defending its healthcare law, the Justice Department had argued that such a mandate for contraceptives offered “no substantial burden on their (nuns) exercise of religion.” The administration said the nuns could complete a self-certification form to opt out of the coverage requirements, turning it over to their health care provider.
“To opt out of providing contraceptive coverage, Little Sisters need only certify that they are nonprofit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and that, because of religious objections, they are opposed to providing coverage for some or all contraceptive services,” attorneys for the Justice Department defended in the appeal.
The nuns would have faced “draconian” fines if they did not comply to the original law, the Los Angeles Times noted.
The Obama administration has until Friday to file a response in the justice’s stay order, which applies only to the nun’s case. Other religious groups and corporations that object to the contraceptive mandate have filed similar motions, which are expected to be heard in March by the high court.
Sotomayor’s Tuesday ruling gave Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organizations temporary exemptions from a part of the Obamacare healthcare law that requires employers to provide insurance policies covering contraception.
She granted the temporary injunction to the Little Sisters of the Poor and Illinois-based Christian Brothers Services, plus related entities.
Sotomayor is giving the government until Friday morning to respond to her decision.
Two different appellate courts had granted stays in three other cases that were pending at the high court, filed by various organizations, including Catholic University of America and non-profits in Michigan and Tennessee, said a lawyer representing the groups. The lower-court actions meant the Supreme Court did not need to act in those cases.
The groups were all asking the courts to exempt them temporarily from the so-called contraception mandate while litigation continues. The mandate, which was to take effect for the organizations on Wednesday, is already in place for many women who have private health insurance.
The organizations accuse the federal government of forcing them to support contraception and sterilization in violation of their religious beliefs or face steep fines.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, requires employers to provide health insurance policies that cover preventive services for women, including contraception and sterilization.
The law 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 nonprofits affiliated with religious entities, which was finalized in July.
Under the accommodation, eligible nonprofits have to provide a “self certification” — described by one lower-court judge as a “permission slip” — that authorizes the insurance companies to provide the coverage. The challengers say that step alone is enough to violate their religious rights.
In separate cases, the Supreme Court already has agreed to hear oral arguments on whether for-profit corporations have a basis to object to the contraception mandate on religious grounds. The court is due to hear those arguments in March and decide the two consolidated cases by the end of June.