Administration Rebuts Nuns in Obamacare Case

In a largely symbolic battle over contraceptive coverage at the Supreme Court, the administration argues the nuns have no basis to claim their religious liberty is being infringed by Obamacare

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George Bridges / AP

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 13, 2009

The Obama administration filed a response at the Supreme Court on Friday morning in an attempt to unblock the implementation of Obamacare for a group of religious charities, arguing that the nuns at the heart of matter have no legal or factual basis for their objections to the health care law’s rule requiring many insurers to cover the cost of contraceptives.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted the emergency injunction on New Year’s Eve in response to the nuns’ assertion that they were being forced to choose between violating their religious beliefs and paying massive fines. Sotomayor will now consider the arguments in the case and decide whether to lift the ban or leave it in place, and whether the Supreme Court should hear the case before lower courts issue a judgment.

The battle between the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and the Obama administration is largely symbolic. Even if the Supreme Court were to take the case and ultimately rule in favor of the nuns, very little would change in the health care law’s rollout — at most, it would affect the specific rule regarding coverage of contraceptives for a small group of people working for these charities and potentially some private businesses, several of which have their own objections to birth control mandates before the court.

Politically, however, the action at the Supreme Court unfolds on the brightly-lit stage of Obamacare implementation and against the backdrop of five years of battles between Republicans and Democrats over the health care law. In that drama, even the temporary stay gives new life to Republican assertions that the law tramples on religious freedom and forces the White House once again to defend the law before the public.

The very narrow question at the heart of the Little Sisters case is whether the act of signing and submitting a form certifying that the nuns’ beliefs prevent them from complying with Obamacare’s contraception mandate would in itself violate their religious beliefs. The nuns argued in their emergency appeal on New Year’s Eve that signing the document would open the door for others to provide contraceptive coverage in their place.

The administration says just because it might, doesn’t mean it would. The government wrote in its filing Friday morning that the insurers to whom the nuns would submit their certification have already said they will not provide contraceptive coverage because they are exempt from the mandate. “Concern that [the nuns] are ‘authorizing others’ to provide coverage lacks any foundation in the facts or the law,” the administration wrote in its response.

The most likely outcome of the current exchange at the court is that Sotomayor will send the case back down to the Tenth Circuit to be decided there. Sotomayor could leave the injunction in place for the nuns, or lift it, at her discretion, and the Supreme Court could reconsider whether to take the case and rule on it later. The nuns have asked that if she lifts the injunction that the Supreme Court hear the case before the lower court rules, something the court rarely does.