Little Sisters hopeful after Supreme Court stays Obamacare birth control mandate

Roman Catholic order with U.S. headquarters in Catonsville won't have to provide birth control coverage to employees, for now; Sotomayor gives administration until Friday to respond

January 01, 2014|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — A Roman Catholic order of nuns who care for the elderly poor was hopeful Wednesday after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked an Obamacare provision that would have required it to authorize birth control coverage for employees starting with the new year.

The Obama administration has allowed some religious nonprofits to sidestep the so-called contraception mandate by filing a form that would allow a third-party administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to the organization.

But the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international order with its U.S. headquarters in Catonsville, say that step alone would amount to participating in a practice that violates Catholic teaching, and they cannot comply "in any way."

The Little Sisters, who employ hundreds of workers at 30 homes for the elderly across the United States, would have faced substantial IRS fines beginning Wednesday.

Those fines are now on hold after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction late Tuesday to exempt the Little Sisters and their health coverage provider, Christian Brothers Services.

Sotomayor, an appointee of President Barack Obama, gave his administration until Friday to respond.

The case, which could have far-reaching implications for religious ministries that provide services to the public, is being watched closely by faith groups and by advocates for birth control.

A federal judge ruled last week that the government could not fine the Little Sisters so long as they filed the so-called self-certification form — and could rest assured that they would not actually be allowing coverage of birth control, because Christian Brothers Services has no intention of providing it.

But the Little Sisters say they cannot file the form under any circumstances. They said Wednesday they were grateful for the decision.

"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 order said in a statement.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori welcomed Sotomayor's action.

"It's certainly preliminary, but I think that it might give some indication that merit has been found in the relief that the Little Sisters of the Poor are asking," he said.

Lori chairs the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Birth control advocates say the mandate ensures crucial preventive care for women. The New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which says it advances sexual and reproductive health and rights, says nearly 60 percent of those who take birth control pills use them at least in part for purposes other than contraception, such as treating endometriosis and regulating menstrual cycles.

Planned Parenthood of Maryland declined Wednesday to comment on Sotomayor's action. Jenny Black, the organization's president and CEO, told The Baltimore Sun last week that birth control is "tremendously important to women for all kinds of reasons, including to control certain medical conditions and to plan our families."

The Little Sisters are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that is also working with Hobby Lobby, the Eternal Word Television Network and several colleges and universities in similar actions.

Senior counsel Mark Rienzi said the firm was "delighted" by Sotomayor's order.

"The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people," he said. "It doesn't need to force nuns to participate."

The Little Sisters filed their federal lawsuit in Denver, where they operate a home, but Sotomayor's action affects the organization nationwide.

Separately, two lower appeals courts granted stays in three other cases that had been pending at the high court, affecting the Catholic University of America in Washington and nonprofits in Michigan and Tennessee. The actions by the lower courts meant the Supreme Court did not need to get involved.

The groups were asking the courts to exempt them temporarily from the contraception mandate while litigation continues. The mandate, which was due to take effect for the organizations on Wednesday, is already in place for many women who have private health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers to provide health insurance policies that cover preventive services for women, including contraception and sterilization.

Lawmakers carved out an exception for religious institutions such as houses of worship that mainly serve and employ members of their own faiths, but not for schools, hospitals and charitable organizations that employ people of all faiths.

Those organizations might qualify for the accommodation offered by the Obama administration involving self-certification — described by one lower court judge as a "permission slip" — that allows the insurance companies to provide the coverage at no cost to the organization.

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