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Administration urges court to reject nuns' challenge to health law

WASHINGTON —The Obama administration told the Supreme Court on Friday that a group of Colorado nuns does not need protection from the new health care law's provision providing contraceptive coverage for employees because the group can easily exempt itself from the requirement.

The government asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor to lift the temporary injunction she issued Tuesday for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Colorado nonprofit organization that provides services to the elderly. The Affordable Care Act, new provisions of which went into effect Wednesday, requires employers who provide insurance coverage to include no-cost contraceptive services as preventive care.

But nonprofit organizations such as the nuns may opt out of the requirement simply by certifying that they have religious objections, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote in a response to Sotomayor filed Friday morning.

"With the stroke of their own pen, applicants can secure for themselves the relief they seek from this court — an exemption from the requirements of the contraceptive-coverage provision," Verrilli wrote.

Religiously oriented nonprofit organizations around the country have objected to the requirement and said it violates protections granted by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law providing special protections for religious expression.

They contend that if they sign the self-certification letters, that makes them complicit in the government's plan to provide contraceptive services, because the law provides that third-party insurers still provide the coverage.

Mark Rienzi, a Catholic University law professor representing the nuns, said the government is "simply blind to the religious exercise at issue: the Little Sisters and other applicants cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf."

But Verrilli said the Little Sisters case provides a weak test case. Their third-party insurer is a church plan that the government contends cannot be required to provide contraceptive services anyway.

The nuns dispute that view.

The nuns unsuccessfully challenged the administration rules in U.S. District Court in Denver, where they operate a nursing home. They are now seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the rules while they pursue their case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver. The circuit court declined to grant such an injunction.

Sotomayor could now rule on the nuns' request herself or refer the matter to the other eight justices.

The suit is part of dozens of lawsuits that have challenged the health care law's requirement that employer-issued insurance plans make contraceptive coverage available.

Administration urges court to reject nuns' challenge to health law 01/03/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 4, 2014 5:26pm]
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