Ruling by Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor sets off another battle over Obamacare

White House says contraception provision is balanced

Advocates for a Denver-based congregation of Catholic nuns on Wednesday applauded an eleventh-hour order by Supreme CourtJustice Sonia Sotomayor to temporarily block a requirement under the Affordable Care Act to insure birth control procedures, but attorneys and analysts agreed the fight is far from over.

The complicated politics of Obamacare were on full display on the first day of the year as a key component of President Obama’s health care law was put on indefinite hold at the last moment by a Catholic court justice whom Mr. Obama himself named to the high court.


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The justice’s ruling was also the latest setback in a string of implementation problems that the Obama administration has encountered since the rollout of its health care exchanges in October.

In a temporary injunction issued by Justice Sotomayor just hours before she helped usher in the new year in New York City’s Times Square, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was blocked “from enforcing against [the Little Sisters of the Poor] the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

The administration has until Friday to respond.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks about her best-selling memoir, "My Beloved World," during an appearance at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Conscientious objectors

The contraception issue has bedeviled Mr. Obama almost from the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, leading to an open break with U.S. Catholic bishops and a series of efforts by the administration to accommodate faith-based leaders while keeping coverage of birth control in Obamacare.

The White House, in a statement released Wednesday, argued that the Justice Department has made clear that the mandate doesn’t apply to religious groups like the nuns and that the changes it has made to the original regulation have met the appeals of institutions tied to religious organizations that oppose artificial contraception.


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“[We] remain confident that our final rules strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious employers with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage,” the White House statement said.

The contraception mandate, part of a package of rules that took effect Wednesday, would have required the nonprofit, which has been helping the elderly poor for 175 years, to provide its employees with a health care plan that included birth control or else face fines.

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters, said the injunction spared the group “from being forced to violate their religion.”

“The U.S. government is big, powerful and expansive,” Mr. Rienzi said. “It’s got lots of ways to give out contraceptives. There’s no reason for the government to make nuns be a part of this.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, also applauded Justice Sotomayor’s decision, calling the contraception mandate “an egregious and blatant violation” of religious freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment.

“No American should be forced to surrender their religious freedom or abandon their deeply held religious beliefs,” he said in a statement.

Attorneys submitted their case to Justice Sotomayor after their request was denied Tuesday by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Justice Sotomayor handles cases from the 10th Circuit.

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