Nuns Celebrate a Legal Victory over the Affordable Care Act

by Trent Hale*

Before she led the New Year’s countdown in Time Square, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an order that blocks parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. An order of Catholic religious sisters, The Little Sisters of the Poor, asked to be exempted from the sections of the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that required them, a religious non-profit, to provide employee health insurance which includes coverage of contraceptive services that are in opposition to Roman Catholic teaching.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops―the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States―criticized the mandate’s requirement of coverage for reproductive services when it was first announced in 2011. In response to these criticisms, the White House issued an accommodation for houses of worship and religiously-affiliated organizations and businesses. In this accommodation, places of worship may elect to not participate in healthcare coverage that supplies contraceptive services to their employees and dependents. For other religious employers (such as hospitals, schools, social service agencies, or religious orders such as the Little Sisters of the Poor), they may certify that they hold moral objections to paying for certain reproductive services for their employees. Once an organization has self-certified, its insurer will then pay for and provide the contraceptive services for the organization’s employees. Despite these accommodations, Roman Catholic bishops and other religiously-affiliated organizations were unsatisfied, and they contend that any participation in the supplying of treatments, devices, and medications that were against their religious teaching was a violation of religious freedom.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, along with their Catholic-affiliated insurance company, Christian Brothers Services, argued that even with the accommodation their right to religious freedom was being violated. The group of Catholic nuns, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty―a non-profit legal and educational organization that serves to protect the interests of religious organizations―filed a class action lawsuit against the US Department of Health and Human Services in the hopes of being able to be released from the contraceptive requirement found in the PPACA. Just one day before the healthcare act would take effect, Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded to the appeal of the nuns and other religiously-based organizations by ordering a temporary stay in the implementation of the portions of the PPAC that would require the coverage of reproductive and contraceptive services. Sotomayor gave the federal government until Friday, January 3rd, to provide a response to the order. This particular judicial action does not permanently alter the potions of the PPACA in question, but it does prohibit its implementation until further briefings can be delivered to the Supreme Court and a more definite decision on the law’s constitutionality can be made. The White House’s statement on Friday calls Justice Sotomayor to dissolve her decision to block the implementation of portions of the PPAC. In its response to Justice Sotomayor, the Obama administration upholds that the accommodations previously made in the PPAC allow for religiously-affiliated organizations to easily remove themselves from the participation in supplying controversial reproductive services while, at the same time, insuring that all employees have the ability to receive these benefits regardless of where they are employed.

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