(New throughout, adds details on legal argument)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON Jan 3 The U.S. government asked the
Supreme Court on Friday not to allow Roman Catholic-affiliated
groups a temporary exemption from a part of the Obamacare
healthcare law that requires employers to provide insurance
policies covering contraception.
On Tuesday night, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had granted a
temporary injunction preventing the government from enforcing
the so-called "contraception mandate" against the Little Sisters
of the Poor and Christian Brothers Services while litigation
In its filing on Friday, the government said the groups have
no legal basis to file the lawsuit because the insurance plan in
question is a "church plan," which the government has already
acknowledged it cannot force to provide contraception coverage.
Little Sisters of the Poor is a Baltimore-based order of
nuns that runs nursing homes across the country. Christian
Brothers Services administers healthcare plans for Catholic
Now that the court has received the government's filing, it
will decide whether to extend the injunction while the case
continues in lower courts. There is no deadline for court
action, and Sotomayor can make the decision herself or refer it
to the whole court, in which case all nine justices will decide.
The case coincides with the expansion this year of coverage
under the 2010 Obamacare law, the most sweeping U.S. social
legislation in 50 years.
The religious 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, aims to
dramatically reduce the number of Americans with no health
insurance, estimated by the government at more than 45 million.
Republicans oppose the law, and hope their stance gains them
seats in November's Congressional elections, especially after
glitches with the website used to enroll people in coverage.
The healthcare law requires employers to provide insurance
covering preventive services for women, including contraception
and sterilization. There is an exception for religious
institutions such as houses of worship that mainly serve and
employ members of their own faith, but not schools, hospitals
and charitable organizations employing people of all faiths.
As a compromise, the administration agreed to an
accommodation for non-profits affiliated with religious entities
that was finalized in July.
Under the accommodation, eligible non-profits must provide a
"self certification", described by one lower court judge as a
"permission slip" authorizing insurance companies to provide the
coverage. Challengers say that step alone violates their
religious rights, regardless of whether employees ultimately
receive contraception coverage.
They also point to court papers in which the government has
said it is still looking at ways to enforce the contraception
mandate against church plan administrators.
In a separate case in U.S. District Court in Washington,
D.C., the government said in a November filing that officials
"continue to consider potential options to fully and
appropriately extend the consumer protections provided by the
preventive services coverage regulations to self-insured church
A federal judge in Colorado, William Martinez, denied the
plaintiffs' request for an injunction on Dec. 27. The
Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed suit on
Dec 31, prompting the last minute plea to the Supreme Court.
Throughout the country, Catholic groups are asking the
courts to exempt them temporarily from the mandate while
litigation continues. Most courts have granted the requests. The
mandate, which was due to take effect for the organizations on
Wednesday, is already in place for many women who have private
In separate cases, the Supreme Court already has agreed to
hear oral arguments on whether for-profit corporations have the
basis to object to the contraception mandate on religious
grounds. The court is due to hear the arguments in March and
decide the two consolidated cases by the end of June.
(Editing by Howard Goller, Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)