WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday offered a short-term compromise that would continue to exempt a group of Denver nuns that operates charity nursing homes from the contraception mandate of the nation's health care law if they declare their objections in writing.
The Little Sisters of the Poor will take the court up on its offer and provide a written notice, officials said.
The justices asked the nuns to write the Department of Health and Human Services declaring themselves a religious nonprofit organization and making their objection to birth control.
In return, the high court would continue to block for them the Affordable Care Act's contraception coverage requirement for employee health insurance of while their appeal is heard in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The nuns' lawyer, Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said they were delighted to hear about the court's decision.
“It made no sense for the Little Sisters to be singled out for fines and punishment before they could even finish their suit,” he said.
Under the health care law, most health insurance plans have to cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptiveson as preventive care for women, free to the patient.
Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the birth control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the general public are not. That includes charitable organizations, universities and hospitals.
The government came up with a compromise that requires insurers or health plan administrators to provide the birth control coverage but allows the religious group to distance itself from that action. The exemption is triggered when the religious group signs a form for the insurer saying that it objects to the coverage. The insurer can then go forward with the coverage.
The Denver nuns said signing that form makes them complicit in providing contraception coverage and violated their religious beliefs.
The high court exempted them from the government form requirements, saying the nuns only have to inform HHS in “writing.”
Rienzi said the court's order also will provide protection to more than 400 other Catholic organizations that receive health benefits through the same Catholic benefits provider, Christian Brothers.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor blocked the contraception coverage mandate for the nuns on New Year's Eve, only hours before portions of the law's coverage went into effect.
Sharon Levin, director of federal reproductive health policy for the National Women's Law Center, said the battle isn't over.
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. That case, which involves Hobby Lobby Inc., is expected to be argued in March and decided by summer.
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