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Supreme Court Extends Nuns' Injunction in Contraceptive Coverage Case

Supreme Court Extends Nuns' Injunction in Contraceptive Coverage Case

January 27, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Friday extended a temporary injunction barring the government from enforcing the federal contraceptive rules for an order of nuns and nearly 400 other organizations that use the same health benefits provider, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 1/24).

The unsigned order "should not be construed as an expression of the court's views on the merits" of the case, the justices wrote (Barnes, Washington Post, 1/24).

Case Background

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor first granted a temporary injunction in December in a class action suit filed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and several other organizations providing care for the elderly.

Although the plaintiffs are eligible for an accommodation for not-for-profit religious employers that object to contraceptive coverage, they argued in the suit that they still "would be required to actively facilitate and promote the distribution of these [contraception] services in ways that are forbidden by their religion."

In January, the DOJ asked the high court to lift the temporary injunction, noting that the groups would not have to provide coverage regardless of the stay. DOJ cited an insurance law called ERISA, under which the health plan administrator for the Little Sisters is classified as a church organization and therefore not required to provide contraceptive coverage (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/3).

Conditions of Latest Order

The justices extended Sotomayor's temporary injunction on the condition that the Little Sisters send HHS written notice that the order is a religious organization with "religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services" (Gerstein/Haberkorn, Politico, 1/25).

According to the Washington Post, the order "essentially delays" the court from considering the lawsuit's legal merits. The order did not provide any legal rationale for the decision and was issued without any noted dissent (Washington Post, 1/24).


Adele Keim -- an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Little Sisters -- said the plaintiffs do not object to providing the written notice ordered by the high court. She said they had objected to the original exemption form because that form also authorized their health plan administrator to "process claims for contraceptive coverage" (New York Times, 1/24).

A DOJ spokesperson noted that the "injunction applies only to the plaintiffs and is not a ruling on the merits of their case." The spokesperson added, "And plaintiffs have always been eligible for an accommodation from the contraceptive coverage requirement."

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said in a statement, "This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty" (Hurley, Reuters, 1/24).

Bazelon: Injunction Understandable While Larger Issues Debated

It is "understandabl[e]" that the court "hit the pause button at this preliminary stage, when what's at issue isn't who wins but whether to delay the fines [for noncompliance] while the courts wrestle with the underlying questions," writes Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, a fellow at Yale Law School, in an opinion piece.

She argues that the University of Notre Dame's lawsuit "and others by religious groups who are clearly subject to the contraception mandate, are the more interesting ones, which will eventually determine the outcome of this clash between religious freedom (arguably) and women's health." Noting that the "action [now] moves back to the lower courts," she concludes, "Godspeed to them" (Bazelon, Slate, 1/24).