Contraception ruling could spur other Catholic not-for-profit groups to seek exemptions

(Story updated at 6:45 p.m. ET)

A decision Friday from the U.S. Supreme Court means that Catholic not-for-profit organizations all across the U.S. will be able to file lawsuits and almost certainly get temporary exemptions from new federal rules requiring them to provide workers with insurance that covers contraception, a constitutional law expert said.

The high court granted an injunction against the federal rules that was requested by a chain of nursing homes run by the Little Sisters of the Poor order of Roman Catholic nuns, plus their third-party insurance administrator. The injunction will stand until the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver can issue a final ruling on the case.

The injunction allows the nuns to file their own paperwork with the government certifying their religious objections to the law, rather than filling out the government-mandated form that they said violated their conscience because it explicitly authorized a third-party to provide the benefits to which they object.

Although the order only applies to the parties that filed the lawsuit, legal experts said not-for-profits who share the Little Sisters' religious beliefs would almost certainly be granted the same protection if they filed lawsuits to get it.

“This is an invitation for parties where the religious beliefs are identical to the Little Sisters of the Poor,” said James Blumstein, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School who specializes in healthcare. “It's not technically binding, but lower courts have to follow Supreme Court precedent, and this is a Supreme Court precedent.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires most insurance plans to cover preventive health services, including all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Following a national outcry from objectors who said the rule violates religious beliefs against birth control, the Obama administration announced a compromise to exempt churches from the rule entirely and let other organizations with religious objections complete a form to allow a third-party company administer the benefits without financial contributions from the objector.

Critics said that solution still violated their conscience, because they considered signing of a government form assigning the responsibility to someone else a form of participation. Several dozen lawsuits from private businesses and not-for-profits have been filed challenging the same requirement, and the Supreme Court has scheduled live arguments on it in March.

Friday's order explicitly says lower courts and lawyers should not view it as a statement on the merits of the case, Blumstein noted.

“Normally an order of this kind is some kind of statement on the merits,” he said. “Here the court is going out of their way to say that that is not the case.”

Follow Joe Carlson on Twitter: @MHJCarlson



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