Sotomayor Grants Temporary Birth Control Reprieve for Catholic Groups

Image Credit: Colleen Casey

Image Credit: Colleen Casey

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted a temporary reprieve to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate to certain Catholic groups just before the new year. The implications of her decision are narrow and it will be in operation “pending the receipt of a response and further order of the undersigned or of the Court.” That response, by the federal government, is due Friday by 10 a.m.

Sotomayor’s stay involved the case Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, Denver, Colorado, A Colorado Non-Profit Corporation, et al v. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the plaintiffs, who include not only the Little Sisters organization in Colorado but a Baltimore-based branch, as well, and the Christian Brothers Employee benefit trust.

In documents filed with the court, the plaintiffs explain it “is a class action lawsuit on behalf of Catholic employers who participate in the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust.” The employers who fall under that umbrella “are forbidden by their religion from participating in the federal government’s regulatory scheme to promote, encourage, and subsidize the use of sterilization, contraceptives, and drugs that cause abortions.”

“Both the Christian Brothers Trust and Christian Brothers Services are operated according to Catholic religious principles –indeed, they exist precisely to provide benefits to the class members and other Catholic institutions in accordance with those religious principles,” the lawsuit states.

According to plaintiffs, The government’s contraception mandate “effectively makes that mission largely illegal, and requires these entities to either participate in the government’s scheme or dramatically reduce their work providing insurance to Catholic institutions.”

The contraception mandate was a contentious issue with religious groups when it was first unveiled. After backlash, the Obama administration agreed to let employees access birth control directly from their insurer, circumventing the workplace. However, this compromise was not enough for many religious groups, who are challenging the law. (An infographic summary of cases by the Becket Fund is available here.)

According to SCOTUSblog (SCOTUS standing for the Supreme Court of the United States), other justices received similar petitions. Most of the lower courts issued injunctions, but the lower court in Denver did not, which lead Sotomayor to grant the injunction.

On Wednesday, Little Sisters of the Poor issued a statement on Sotomayor’s ruling. “We are grateful for the decision of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granting us a temporary injunction protecting us from the HHS contraceptive mandate. 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.”

Planned Parenthood reacted to the ruling as well. The group says that birth control is a form of basic preventative care, which needs to be available because it “enables millions of women to support themselves financially, complete their education, and plan their families and have children when they’re ready.”

The organization added: “The Affordable Care Act ensures that women can access birth control without co-pays no matter where they work, just like any other kind of preventive care. Religiously affiliated organizations, including the two that filed this emergency appeal at the Supreme Court, are already able to get an exemption so that they aren’t paying for or administrating coverage of birth control if it violates their religious mission.”

Later this year, the Supreme Court will hear two cases about the mandate, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The Becket Fund provides representation in the latter.

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