Supreme Court Issues Stay in Obamacare Birth-Control Case

A nonprofit nursing home run by nuns will not have to pay a penalty for refusing to provide contraception coverage while a court case is pending.

A woman holds prescription contraceptives June 13, 2001 in Seattle, Washington. A federal judge ruled on that Bartell Drug Co., which operates 50 drug stores in the Seattle region must pay for prescription contraceptives, like the birth control pills shown here, for its female employees. The class-action suit was brought against Bartell Drug Co. by Jennifer Erickson, a 27 year-old pharmacist with the company, and may lead employers across the country to do the same.
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Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Jan. 24, 2014, 12:14 p.m.

The Su­preme Court on Fri­day gran­ted a tem­por­ary ex­emp­tion from Obama­care’s con­tra­cep­tion man­date to a re­li­gious non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that sued the ad­min­is­tra­tion on the grounds that the man­date vi­ol­ated its re­li­gious be­liefs.

The case of Little Sis­ters of the Poor, a nurs­ing home run by Cath­ol­ic nuns, will re­turn to the 10th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in Den­ver for a rul­ing on the non­profit’s suit. But thanks to Fri­day’s rul­ing, Little Sis­ters will not be pen­al­ized for not cov­er­ing con­tra­cep­tion for its em­ploy­ees while the case is pending.

Justice So­nia So­to­may­or re­ferred the case to the full Court fol­low­ing her de­cision on New Year’s Eve to grant Little Sis­ters a pre­lim­in­ary in­junc­tion. Had So­to­may­or not gran­ted the re­prieve be­fore Jan. 1 — when the man­date took ef­fect — Little Sis­ters would have had to pay a pen­alty or com­ply.

“Com­pli­ance” with Obama­care’s man­date, however, does not mean Little Sis­ters would have had to pay for its em­ploy­ees’ con­tra­cep­tion.

As stated un­der the law, re­li­gious or­gan­iz­a­tions are ex­empt from the man­date re­quir­ing em­ploy­ers to in­clude con­tra­cept­ive ser­vices in em­ploy­ees’ health plans.

Be­cause Little Sis­ters is a re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated or­gan­iz­a­tion — rather than a re­li­gious or­gan­iz­a­tion, such as a church — it did not qual­i­fy for the ex­emp­tion.

In­stead, it was covered un­der a sep­ar­ate, com­prom­ise reg­u­la­tion the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued al­most one year ago. Un­der that deal, Little Sis­ters — and thou­sands of oth­er sim­il­arly clas­si­fied or­gan­iz­a­tions who ob­jec­ted to the man­date on grounds that it vi­ol­ated their re­li­gious liberty — would have to sign a form in­dic­at­ing that they ob­jec­ted to provid­ing con­tra­cep­tion on re­li­gious grounds. In ex­change, they would not be pen­al­ized for fail­ing to meet the man­date, be­cause the in­sur­ance com­pany would in­stead pay for the con­tra­cept­ive cov­er­age for their em­ploy­ees.

Little Sis­ters ar­gues that by sign­ing the form that “trig­gers the start of cov­er­age,” they are com­pli­cit in the act of provid­ing con­tra­cep­tion. “In good con­science, they can­not do that,” wrote the law­yers for the Beck­et Fund for Re­li­gious Liberty, the firm rep­res­ent­ing Little Sis­ters. “So the ‘ac­com­mod­a­tion’ still vi­ol­ates their re­li­gious be­liefs.”

In Decem­ber, the Den­ver ap­pel­late court de­clined to grant a pre­lim­in­ary in­junc­tion, judging that the Little Sis­ters “reads too much in­to the lan­guage of the form, which re­quires only that the in­di­vidu­al sign­ing it cer­ti­fy that her or­gan­iz­a­tion op­poses provid­ing con­tra­cept­ive cov­er­age.”

After Little Sis­ters filed an emer­gency ap­peal to the Su­preme Court, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had hoped the justices would agree, but its de­feat Fri­day may only be tem­por­ary: The Court stressed it was not rul­ing on the mer­its of Little Sis­ters’ case in is­su­ing the de­cision to con­tin­ue the stay.

While the Su­preme Court won’t be tak­ing up the Little Sis­ters case, it is sched­uled to re­view a claim by for-profit com­pan­ies with re­li­gious ob­jec­tions to the con­tra­cep­tion man­date on March 25, a de­bate which will re­quire the Court to re­view wheth­er cor­por­a­tions First Amend­ment rights — ex­ten­ded through the Cit­izens United de­cision — in­clude re­li­gious rights.

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