A Roman Catholic order of nuns who care for the elderly poor was hopeful Wednesday after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked an Obamacare provision that would have required it to authorize birth control coverage for employees starting with the new year.
The Obama administration has allowed some religious nonprofits to sidestep the so-called contraception mandate by filing a form that would allow a third-party administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to the organization.
But the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international order with its U.S. headquarters in Catonsville, say that step alone would amount to participating in a practice that violates Catholic teaching, and they cannot comply "in any way."
The Little Sisters, who employ hundreds of workers at 30 homes for the elderly across the United States, would have faced substantial IRS fines beginning Wednesday.
Those fines are now on hold after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction late Tuesday to exempt the Little Sisters and their health coverage provider, Christian Brothers Services.
Sotomayor, an appointee of President Barack Obama, gave his administration until Friday to respond.
The case, which could have far-reaching implications for religious ministries that provide services to the public, is being watched closely by faith groups and by advocates for birth control.
A federal judge ruled last week that the government could not fine the Little Sisters so long as they filed the so-called self-certification form — and could rest assured that they would not actually be allowing coverage of birth control, because Christian Brothers Services has no intention of providing it.
But the Little Sisters say they cannot file the form under any circumstances. They said Wednesday they were grateful for the decision.
"We hope and pray that we will receive a favorable outcome in order to continue to serve the elderly of all faiths with the same community support and religious freedom that we have always appreciated," the order said in a statement.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori welcomed Sotomayor's action.
"It's certainly preliminary, but I think that it might give some indication that merit has been found in the relief that the Little Sisters of the Poor are asking," he said.
Lori chairs the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Birth control advocates say the mandate ensures crucial preventive care for women. The New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which says it advances sexual and reproductive health and rights, says nearly 60 percent of those who take birth control pills use them at least in part for purposes other than contraception, such as treating endometriosis and regulating menstrual cycles.
Planned Parenthood of Maryland declined Wednesday to comment on Sotomayor's action. Jenny Black, the organization's president and CEO, told The Baltimore Sun last week that birth control is "tremendously important to women for all kinds of reasons, including to control certain medical conditions and to plan our families."
The Little Sisters are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that is also working with Hobby Lobby, the Eternal Word Television Network and several colleges and universities in similar actions.
Senior counsel Mark Rienzi said the firm was "delighted" by Sotomayor's order.
"The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people," he said. "It doesn't need to force nuns to participate."
The Little Sisters filed their federal lawsuit in Denver, where they operate a home, but Sotomayor's action affects the organization nationwide.
Separately, two lower appeals courts granted stays in three other cases that had been pending at the high court, affecting the Catholic University of America in Washington and nonprofits in Michigan and Tennessee. The actions by the lower courts meant the Supreme Court did not need to get involved.
The groups were asking the courts to exempt them temporarily from the contraception mandate while litigation continues. The mandate, which was due to take effect for the organizations on Wednesday, is already in place for many women who have private health insurance.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers to provide health insurance policies that cover preventive services for women, including contraception and sterilization.
Lawmakers carved out an exception for religious institutions such as houses of worship that mainly serve and employ members of their own faiths, but not for schools, hospitals and charitable organizations that employ people of all faiths.
Those organizations might qualify for the accommodation offered by the Obama administration involving self-certification — described by one lower court judge as a "permission slip" — that allows the insurance companies to provide the coverage at no cost to the organization.
The Little Sisters and others say that step alone would violate their religious rights.
Lori said the Little Sisters are a religious organization acting out their faith and they should not have to provide or allow a third party to provide a service that violates members' beliefs.
"If you've ever gone to St. Martin's Home in Baltimore, you walk around, ask yourself, 'Is this not a work of religion? Is this not completely religious?' " he said. "Why should a religious order whose whole life is dedicated to working with and praying for the aged, why should they have to give up their religious freedom?"
Lori said the Catholic bishops "have always supported accessible health care." But he said the "flurry" of objections filed by dozens of organizations and businesses show that the contraception mandate is facing "significant head winds."
In separate cases, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments on whether for-profit corporations may successfully object to the contraception mandate on religious grounds. The court is due to hear the arguments in March and decide the two consolidated cases by the end of June.
Lori said the outcome was difficult to predict.
"Naturally, I want to be hopeful," he said. "It's always best to wait and see — and pray."
Reuters contributed to this article.