(Adds reaction, further background)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON Jan 24 The U.S. Supreme Court said
on Friday that, while litigation continues, an order of Roman
Catholic nuns need not comply with a part of President Barack
Obama's healthcare law requiring employers to provide insurance
that covers contraception.
In the latest skirmish over religious objections to
providing government-mandated contraception, the four-sentence
court order was a partial victory for the Little Sisters of the
Poor, a Baltimore-based order of nuns that runs nursing homes,
and Illinois-based Christian Brothers Services, which manages
healthcare plans for Catholic groups.
The unusually worded order by the court did impose a
requirement on the groups before they can claim the exemption.
First, they must send written notification to the Department of
Health and Human Services saying they object to the
The court's decision means that, as long as the groups send
the letters, they are effectively exempt while litigation
continues in lower courts, putting off for now any conclusive
decision on this latest legal test of Obamacare, as the
president's 2010 Affordable Care Act has become known.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the
groups, hailed the court's order as a victory.
"We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this
order protecting the Little Sisters," attorney Mark Rienzi said
in a statement. "The government has lots of ways to deliver
contraceptives to people - it doesn't need to force nuns to
The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a
request seeking comment.
'PAPERWORK, NOT RELIGIOUS LIBERTY'
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation
of America, which supports the mandate, said in a statement that
the case focused only on the way that groups like the Little
Sisters can claim an exemption.
"This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty," she
Dozens of other Catholic groups are involved in similar
litigation across the country. Most have already won temporary
injunctions. So far, no federal appeals court has ruled on the
merits of the groups' claims, according to the Becket Fund.
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 Little Sisters lawsuit was filed also on behalf of
hundreds of other groups that obtain benefits via Christian
Brothers Services, although that has not been certified as a
class-action at this stage. The Becket Fund say they would also
benefit from the court's order.
The unsigned Supreme Court order said it "should not be
construed as an expression of the court's views on the merits."
The Obamacare law requires employers to provide health
insurance policies that cover preventive services for women,
including contraception and sterilization.
The act 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 non-profits affiliated with religious entities
that was finalized in July. But the Little Sisters and other
Catholic groups said the compromise process still violated their
In court filings, the government had conceded it could not
enforce the mandate against the Little Sisters in any case
because of the nature of their health-care plan.
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 a last-minute plea to the Supreme Court.
Although Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary
injunction on Dec. 31, the court then spent more than three
weeks weighing how to proceed.
In separate cases, the Supreme Court has already agreed to
hear oral arguments in March on whether for-profit corporations
can object to the contraception mandate on religious grounds.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and