Richard Wolf, USA Today
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Friday temporarily exempted a
religious non-profit organization from the federal health care law's
mandate that insurance plans include free coverage of contraceptives.
justices' order was a defeat for the Obama administration, which had
argued that accommodations already in place protected religious groups
from violating their beliefs that some birth control methods cause
It was a victory for opponents of the so-called
contraception mandate, who had contended that allowing their insurance
companies to provide the coverage - rather than including it directly
in employer plans - still violated their principles.
The group at
the center of the case - The Little Sisters of the Poor - can
sidestep the mandate while its case is pending before a federal appeals
The issue isn't going away anytime soon. The high court already has
agreed to consider two cases in March involving for-profit corporations
whose owners oppose abortion on religious grounds. The businesses say
they should not have to abide by the contraception mandate; the
government says corporations cannot practice religion.
law championed by President Obama in 2009 and passed by Congress in
2010, health officials created a minimum allowable preventive care plan
that includes birth control for women. Refusing to provide the coverage
could result in millions of dollars in fines.
When challenged both
by for-profit companies and non-profits such as church-affiliated
schools, hospitals and charities, the administration backed off
somewhat, exempting churches and houses of worship and providing the
secondary insurance "accommodation" to other non-profits. Businesses
received no such break.
"Religious liberty will be protected, and a
law that requires free preventative care will not discriminate against
women," Obama said in February 2012, as the controversy threatened to
upend his re-election campaign. Catholic leaders, Republican
presidential candidates and lawmakers from both parties had derided the
original policy for religious non-profits.
But dozens of non-profit groups called the new policy insufficient.
With it scheduled to take effect this month, several petitions were
filed with the Supreme Court seeking that the requirement be set aside
while the matter works its way through the courts.
On New Year's
Eve, before presiding over the Times Square celebration, Justice Sonia
Sotomayor granted a temporary stay in a case involving The Little
Sisters of the Poor, a group of Roman Catholic nuns that operates
nursing homes in Denver and Baltimore.
Sotomayor demanded a
response from the federal government, which argued that the charity
would not violate its religious beliefs by granting authority to its
insurer to provide contraception benefits directly. In response, the
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the nuns, said they
would have to "deputize a third party to sin on their behalf."
federal government is massive and powerful," said Mark Rienzi, senior
counsel for the Becket Fund. "It can obviously find ways to distribute
contraceptives and abortion pills without forcing nuns to be involved."
more than 100 lawsuits have been filed against the contraception
coverage mandate, almost equally divided between for-profit businesses
and non-profit groups.
The cases scheduled for oral arguments in March - filed by Hobby
Lobby, a chain of more than 500 arts-and-crafts stores, and Conestoga
Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania-based woodworking business run by a
Mennonite family - are the first legal challenges to Obamacare to reach
the high court since its 5-4 ruling upholding the law in June 2012.
the business nor religious group lawsuits threaten the law itself. But
the business challenge is significant in its own right because it will
answer a fundamental question with far-reaching consequences: Can
corporations practice religion? Until now, no court has granted
religious rights under the First Amendment's "free exercise clause" to