High court grants exemption from birth control mandate

12:50 PM, Jan 25, 2014   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - 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.

The 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 abortions.

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 court.

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.

Nationally, some 100 lawsuits have been filed against the contraception coverage mandate, almost equally divided between for-profit businesses and non-profit groups.

Under the 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."

On Friday, the Becket Fund and other groups opposed to abortion heralded the high court's order. "The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people - it doesn't need to force nuns to participate," said senior counsel Mark Rienzi.

Pro-choice groups minimized the importance of the court's decision. "This order is not about the merits," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "This case raises a very narrow and specific question about the administrative mechanism that religious groups use to claim their exemption. This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty."

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.

Neither 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 for-profit businesses.

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