President Obama’s besieged Affordable Care Act has suffered another setback with a US Supreme Court justice issuing a temporary injunction late Tuesday preventing enforcement of the law’s contraception mandate against a group of Roman Catholic nuns who provide care to low-income elderly patients.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued the injunction shortly before the ACA mandate was set to take effect at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
It proved to be a busy evening for Justice Sotomayor, who also considered a stay request from Utah officials in a case involving same-sex marriage, while also presiding over the famous ball drop in New York City’s Times Square in the final countdown to the New Year.
“It is ordered that respondents are temporarily enjoined from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Sotomayor wrote in her brief order.
She gave the Obama administration until Friday at 10 a.m. to file a response.
At issue is a controversial provision of the ACA that requires employers to provide their workers with health insurance that offers a full range of free contraceptives, including drugs that some religious adherents believe cause abortions.
More than 90 lawsuits have been filed by corporations, nonprofit groups, and religious-affiliated organizations seeking to block the contraception mandate. The groups say the requirement that they pay for workers' access to such contraceptive methods violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
The Obama administration exempted churches and other religious organizations from compliance with that aspect of the law. And after objections, the administration created an opt-out provision to help insulate a wider range of religious-affiliated groups from the mandate.
But that has not satisfied many religious objectors.
Among them is the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver. In September, the group filed a federal lawsuit complaining that on Jan. 1 it would be subject to the contraceptive mandate and thus potentially liable to pay millions of dollars in fines to the Internal Revenue Service for failure to comply with the government’s demands.
A federal judge refused to issue an injunction blocking enforcement of the law, and a federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld that decision.
The appeals court panel said that Little Sisters of the Poor could opt out of the mandate and that because the group’s health insurance is considered a “church plan,” the Little Sisters would not be subject to fines or penalties for noncompliance.
“Therefore, there is no enforceable obligation … for any of the Plaintiffs to provide any of the objectionable coverage,” the appeals court said.
Lawyers for the Little Sisters filed an 11th-hour appeal to Sotomayor, who granted the temporary injunction.
“We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order protecting the Little Sisters,” said Mark Rienzi, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Little Sisters in the case.
“The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people. It doesn’t need to force nuns to participate,” he said in a statement.
Later this year the US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in two cases testing whether President Obama’s health-care reform law violates the religious rights of for-profit company owners and their corporations by forcing them to provide their employees with certain contraceptives that offend the owners’ religious beliefs.