Court hands nuns a temporary win

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The Supreme Court ruled Friday that an order of nuns in Colorado is not required to fully comply with ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, in a partial and temporary victory for critics of the contentious provision.

In an order handed down late Friday, the justices concluded that the nuns — and roughly 200 religious nonprofits — do not need to file government forms to exempt themselves from the law’s mandate that workers receive free contraception as part of employee health insurance plans.

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Still, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and other nonprofits “that hold themselves out as religious” and object to the provision must inform the Department of Health and Human Services of that status to avoid paying penalties under the law.

The order is meant to stand until a lower court rules on a pending appeal in the legal fight between the Little Sisters and the Health Department, the court said, making clear that it was not weighing in on the overall merits of the dispute. The Little Sisters case is among dozens of challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on birth control, which proponents say is vital to protect women’s reproductive health. 

Ceclle Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, stressed that the case at the lower court remains undecided.

"This case raises a very narrow and specific question about the administrative mechanism that religious groups use to claim their exemption," she said in a written statement. "This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty."

The Supreme Court is set to rule in March on a related but unconnected case brought by Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned craft chain that argues the mandate trammels on religious expression for for-profit corporations.

The Little Sisters case deals with nonprofits that are religious in nature.

On New Year’s Eve, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction blocking the mandate from taking effect on the following day for the nuns, who run a nursing home, and roughly 200 Catholic groups that offer benefits under the same health plan.

The Obama administration objected to the order, saying the groups needed simply to fill out paperwork to be exempt from the mandate. 

"With the stroke of their own pen, applicants can secure for themselves the relief they seek from this Court — an exemption from the requirements of the contraceptive-coverage provision," the U.S. solicitor general wrote in a 37-page motion seeking denial of a permanent injunction. 

The high court effectively made it easier for the groups to be free from the provision — at least for now.

“To meet the condition for injunction pending appeal, applicants need not use the form prescribed by the Government and need not send copies to third-party administrators,” the court ruled.