Ruling on insurance, birth control pleases religious groups

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Times Square for the new year's ball drop. She temporarily blocked a requirement of the ACA concerning insurance and birth control.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Times Square for the new year's ball drop. She temporarily blocked a requirement of the ACA concerning insurance and birth control. (CHARLES SYKES / AP)
Posted: January 03, 2014

Several area religious organizations and businesses appeared to be happier Wednesday after an order by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocked a requirement that some religious-affiliated employers provide health insurance that includes birth control.

Sotomayor's two-sentence order came about two hours before the policies of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act were to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. The order applies only to this issue, but adds to the debate about the law.

She gave the Obama administration until Friday to respond to a bid by the Denver and Baltimore chapters of the Little Sisters of the Poor for an exemption from the mandate.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying the administration was confident the rules "strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing nonprofit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage."

Peter Feuerherd, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Camden, hailed Sotomayor's decision.

"The church should not be, but is, in a position of rescinding its religious tenets over the health-care law," Feuerherd said. "Different dioceses, religious orders, and schools are making the same point, so if Justice Sotomayor is listening to that, it is very positive for us."

Under the new law, most health-insurance plans have to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives as preventive care for women. That means the coverage is provided free.

Churches and other venues of worship are exempt from the birth-control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the public are not. Those include charitable organizations, universities, and hospitals.

The requirement prompted an outcry from religious groups, which led the administration to try to craft a compromise. Under that attempt, insurers or health-plan administrators must provide birth-control coverage, though the religious institution itself is not responsible. But the administration's compromise did not satisfy some critics, who called it a fig leaf.

The Supreme Court upheld the core of the health-care law in 2010, but dozens of lawsuits are challenging specific aspects, including requirements to pay for birth control.

The Supreme Court on Nov. 26 agreed to hear two cases brought by business owners who object on religious grounds to the birth-control mandate. The lawsuits by the for-profit employers, the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of Lancaster County, will be the court's first look at Obama's biggest legislative accomplishment since the 2010 decision.

Randall Wenger, a lawyer with the Independence Law Center who is representing Conestoga, said his client was thrilled at the recent decision.

"I think Sotomayor's injunction blocking the enforcement of the mandate suggests that she thinks there is a real religious issue at stake," Wenger said. "If it is true for nuns in Colorado, then I think it is true for Mennonite cabinetmakers in Lancaster County."

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined comment, but forwarded a statement by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kurtz released a letter he wrote to Obama urging him to temporarily exempt religious institutions from the fines and await a Supreme Court decision. The regulation, Kurtz wrote, "harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith. The administration's flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our 'First Freedom' under the Constitution."

610-313-8111 @MariSchaefer

This article contains information from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.