Justice delays health law’s birth control mandate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Only hours before the law was to take effect Wednesday, a U.S. Supreme Court justice blocked implementation of part of President Barack Obama’s health care law that would have forced some religion-affiliated organizations to provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control coverage.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s decision came after a different effort by Catholic-affiliated groups from around the country. Those groups had rushed to the federal courts to stop the start of portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Sotomayor acted on a request from an organization of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. She gave government officials until 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) Friday to respond to her order.

The law requires employers to provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives. That was not acceptable, said the nuns’ lawyer, Mark L. Rienzi.

The Obama administration crafted a compromise, or accommodation, that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan’s outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.

But for that to work, the nuns would have to sign a form authorizing their insurance company to provide contraceptive coverage, which would still violate their beliefs, Rienzi said.

In a statement Tuesday night, Rienzi said he was delighted by Sotomayor’s order. “The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people,” he said. “It doesn’t need to force nuns to participate.”

The White House on Wednesday issued a statement saying that the administration is confident that its rules “strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage.”

Sotomayor’s decision to delay the contraceptive portion of the law was joined by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which also issued an emergency stay for Catholic-affiliated groups challenging the contraceptive provision, including the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and Catholic University.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. praised the appeals court’s action in a statement.

“This action by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is in line with the rulings of courts all across the country which have held that the (Health and Human Services) mandate imposes a substantial and impermissible burden on the free exercise of religion,” the archdiocese said.

The Supreme Court already has decided to rule on whether businesses may use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover birth control for employees.

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