Supreme Court will hear appeals in Catholic, other groups' mandate cases

The U.S. Supreme Court justices said on Nov. 6 they will hear seven pending appeals in lawsuits brought by several Catholic and other faith-based entities against the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate. The court will hear appeals from groups in Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and the District of Columbia.

Among the plaintiffs are the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, Priests for Life, Southern Nazarene University and Texas Baptist University and several Pennsylvania Catholic institutions. Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees' artificial birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage.

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In all the cases to be argued before the high court in March, appellate courts in various jurisdictions sided with the Obama administration. The rulings said the religious entities' freedom of religion was not burdened by having to comply with the mandate as they have argued, because the federal government has in place an accommodation for a third party to provide the contested coverage.

But the religious groups object to that notification, saying they still would be complicit in supporting practices they oppose. While their appeals worked their way to the high court, the government has not been able to force the groups to comply with the mandate or face daily fines for noncompliance.

The Archdiocese of Washington said it "is heartened to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the D.C. Circuit's flawed ruling in our challenge to the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate, together with the other challenges pending before the court."

"A particular concern for the archdiocese is the government's treatment of Catholic educational and charitable ministries as if they are somehow less religious than houses of worship, and therefore less deserving of the right to operate in accord with the church's teachings," it said in a statement. "The archdiocese is hopeful that the court will vindicate our religious freedom, and the freedom of Catholic ministries also seeking to practice their faith freely, as guaranteed under the law.

Only those religious employers that meet narrow criteria set by the Obama administration are exempt from the mandate. Houses of worship are exempt, for example, but most Catholic and other religious employers are not.

Nonexempt religious employers can opt out of providing the coverage using what the administration calls an accommodation, or "work around." They must notify Health and Human Services in writing of their religious objections. Then HHS or the Department of Labor government in turn tells insurers and third-party administrators that they must cover the services at no charge to employees. 

In an afternoon telephone news conference, a spokesman for the Becket Fund, whose lawyers represent the Little Sisters of the Poor, said the Obama administration had "strenuously argued" that the high court not take the Little Sisters of the Poor case.

The government "argued hard and the court granted it anyway," said Mark Rienzi, Becket's senior counsel. "So the government will have to explain why they fought hard to make the Little Sisters cover contraceptives."

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