Supreme Court offers nuns a birth control 'out'
Pete Williams, Justice Correspondent, NBC News
The Supreme Court extended a hold Friday on a part of the Obamacare contraceptive requirement that applies to groups with religious affiliations.
The order offers an alternative to the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic nuns who operate nursing homes in Denver and Baltimore and who are suing over the new health care law's requirement that employers provide coverage for contraceptive care.
The court said the order was "based it on all of the circumstances of the case" and should not be construed as an expression of its views on the legal issues involved.
All new insurance plans, including those provided by employers, must provide free birth control as part of a list of essential benefits, including vaccinations and cancer screenings.
Churches are exempt from the law and don't need to take any action. Religiously affiliated non-profit groups -- like the nuns -- may also get an exemption, but it isn't automatic: they must fill out a form stating that providing contraceptive coverage would violate their religious principles. If they don't seek the exemption and refuse to provide the coverage, they face big fines.
The nuns say the very act of filling out the form violates their religious beliefs because it frees up the administrator of their health care plan to step in and provide the contraceptive coverage. The sisters say signing the form, in essence, deputizes their insurance provider to offer the coverage, making them part of a process they find objectionable.
On New Year's Eve, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor barred the government from enforcing the law against the nuns. Her order was temporary, to be in effect until she had a chance to hear the government's side.
On Friday the full court gave groups like the nuns an out: if an employer informs the government in writing that it is a non-profit, religious organization with religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services, they do not have to fill out the government form and do not have to provide the coverage. The order will apply while the case is on appeal in the lower courts.
The administration says the group is already exempt from the law, because their insurance is provided by Christian Brothers Services. As a church organization, it's excused from the law's requirements.
When some religious groups objected, the Obama administration provided exemptions. And an older law, the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, exempts church plans from regulation anyway.