The ACA will be seen as the major legacy of this administration. But from the rollout of the HealthCare.gov site to this, concern about legacy and public opinion seems to have been absent at the White House and HHS.
True, the administration had gone to great length to craft a compromise on the issue. That compromise allows not-for-profit religious organizations who object to simply sign off on having their insurers provide the benefits directly to workers rather than doing it themselves. At least one major Catholic organization was satisfied with that compromise. But that kind of arms-length agreement didn't appeal to the nuns, or others, who see birth control as a moral wrong, a sin, and can't condone being part of it.
“Will King Obama Throw Nuns into the Lion's Den?” wrote one blogger. “Though he's had plenty of opportunities to compromise on his overreaching contraceptive mandate, President Obama has defiantly refused them all. Now he's fighting a group of nuns in U.S. Supreme Court,” wrote the New York Post.
The Supreme Court is likely to settle the matter. Obama court appointee Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a stay on New Year's Eve so the sisters wouldn't have to start paying penalties for not complying with the contraceptive provision. The White House argues the nuns wouldn't be subject to penalties because the nursing homes' employees are covered by a self-insured church plan that's exempt from the mandate.
While Sotomayor's action doesn't imply how the entire court may rule, it's fair to guess that if even a liberal justice saw reason to issue such an order, conservatives on the court will be siding with the sisters.
A court loss would be another red mark on the administration's efforts to sell the public on the ACA. And even if the administration wins in court, the public opinion black eye is likely to linger.