A local order of nuns that has sued the federal government over a contraception coverage requirement under Obamacare found hope in a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which backed the University of Notre Dame in a similar action.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, an international order of Catholic nuns with U.S. headquarters in Catonsville, is one of hundreds of groups fighting the requirement on religious grounds.
The nuns, who care for the elderly, say providing artificial birth control violates Catholic teaching. The Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction last January to stay the requirement while a lower court decides the nuns' appeal.
The parties argued before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December and are waiting for a ruling.
"Notre Dame is the centerpiece of the government's argument," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Little Sisters. "The bottom line is the key thing the government has been arguing from has now been erased by the Supreme Court."
Faced with the lawsuits from the Little Sisters, Notre Dame and other groups, the Obama administration last year offered a compromise: Those that object need not provide or pay for the disputed contraceptives themselves, as long as they notify their insurers or the government so the coverage can be provided separately.
But the Little Sisters said they could not sign the paperwork, and Notre Dame told the justices it would be "complicit in sin" if it consented to that arrangement, which would trigger coverage for what both consider "abortion-inducing" contraceptives.
In a one-line order Monday, the justices granted Notre Dame's appeal and told the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take another look at the university's claim that any involvement in the contraceptive policy violates its right to the free exercise of religion.
"We're gratified" by the high court's action, Notre Dame spokesman Paul J. Browne said. "Notre Dame continues to challenge the federal mandate as an infringement on our fundamental right to the free exercise of our Catholic faith."
Rienzi said the Little Sisters "are praying for continued protection, and they're praying for the day when they can get out of court."
"They're not in this [ministry] to get into lawsuits," he said. "They're eager to win this and go back to doing what their ministry is."
Administration lawyers argued the court should reject Notre Dame's appeal because the university, like other religious schools, "can now opt out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement." They said the required notification simply alerts officials of the university's religious objection.
The court's order shows the dispute, which involves hundreds of schools, colleges and charities, remains far from resolved.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said it is "hard to believe we are still fighting for access to birth control. This is a case about paperwork, not religious liberty. Religious groups have been exempt from the birth control benefit all along."
President Barack Obama's health advisers adopted the contraceptive policy as a regulation under the Affordable Care Act. Access to the full range of contraceptives at no cost was deemed to be a necessary part of preventive care.
Churches and houses of worships were exempted from the requirement.
The high court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case last year that corporate employers that have a strong religious objection may refuse to provide certain contraceptives.
But in between the churches and corporations were the thousands of religiously affiliated schools, colleges, hospitals and charities.
The administration adopted an "accommodation" that it said protected the religious rights of these employers as well as the rights of their female employees. It told employers such as Notre Dame they need not provide the disputed contraceptives, so long as they notified their insurer or the Department of Health and Human Services. The contraceptives would then be provided separately to eligible employees.
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Dozens of groups have filed lawsuits to challenge that accommodation as a violation of religious liberty. The Supreme Court could agree this year to resolve the dispute.
But Notre Dame, unlike many other Catholic schools and colleges, did not win a temporary exemption. It was told it needed to comply with the administration policy while the appeals went forward.
The university had notified the government in December 2013 of its objection to providing the coverage. Two months later, the 7th Circuit in a 2-1 decision cited this action as one reason for refusing its request for a temporary total shield from the policy.
Notre Dame appealed to the Supreme Court and argued its religious liberty rights were being violated currently because it had to make the required notifications to the government.
On Monday, the Supreme Court vacated the 7th Circuit's decision in Notre Dame v. Burwell and said the university's request for a temporary exemption should be reconsidered in light of the Hobby Lobby decision.