Justice Sotomayor temporarily blocks ObamaCare contraception mandate

“The complicated politics of Obamacare were on full display on the first day of the year as a key component of President Obama’s health care law was put on indefinite hold at the last moment by a Catholic court justice whom Mr. Obama himself named to the high court,” writes the Washington Timesneatly summarizing the situation as Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted a request from a Colorado order of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor, and issued a temporary injunction against the contraception mandates of ObamaCare.

Sotomayor acted almost literally at the eleventh hour, since the mandate was slated to go into effect the morning after she issued her injunction.  The Supreme Court Justice was in Times Square for the New Year’s Eve ball drop just hours after she signed off on the order.  The Little Sisters of the Poor were denied their request for an injunction from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on the very same evening.  How’s that for courtroom drama?

The Obama Administration now has until Friday to respond to Sotomayor’s decision, at which point the future of the injunction – currently only good for a few days – will be decided.  The Washington Times describes their initial reaction:

The White House, in a statement released Wednesday, argued that the Justice Department has made clear that the mandate doesn’t apply to religious groups like the nuns and that the changes it has made to the original regulation have met the appeals of institutions tied to religious organizations that oppose artificial contraception.

“[We] remain confident that our final rules strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious employers with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage,” the White House statement said.

The New York Times neatly summarizes the case:

The Obama administration had argued that the Little Sisters of the Poor could opt out of the contraceptive coverage requirement by completing “a self-certification form” and providing it to the entity that administers their health benefits. Therefore, the Justice Department said, the contraceptive mandate imposes “no substantial burden on their exercise of religion.”

“To opt out of providing contraceptive coverage, Little Sisters need only certify that they are nonprofit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and that, because of religious objections, they are opposed to providing coverage for some or all contraceptive services,” the Justice Department told the appeals court on Monday.

The administration says it has exempted churches from the contraceptive coverage requirement and offered an accommodation to certain religious nonprofit groups. But the Becket Fund argued that “the ‘accommodation’ still forces the Little Sisters to find an insurer who will cover sterilization, contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices.”

“The Sisters would also be required to sign a form that triggers the start of that coverage,” it said. “In good conscience, they cannot do that. So the ‘accommodation’ still violates their religious beliefs.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly defended the birth control requirement. “The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said last month.

Except for the dictators of ObamaCare, of course.  That’s what they do.  Who are these old-fashioned “bitter clingers,” as President Obama once memorably described them, to claim their ancient and heartfelt religious traditions should take precedence over the wise judgment of our beloved super-government?  All they have to do is fill out a stack of paperwork, and they can kinda-sorta exercise their silly old freedom of religion… provided the mega-State decides they qualify as a bona fide religious organization, of course.  Devoutly religious people trying to operate for-profit businesses in line with their religious principles are still out of luck, unless Hobby Lobby and similar plaintiffs prevail at the Supreme Court.

It’s generally assumed that the Hobby Lobby case will deal a staggering blow against ObamaCare if the government loses, but the long-term ramifications of the Little Sisters of the Poor appeal should not be underestimated.  They offer a challenging argument by refusing to participate in an objectionable program at all, even by signing off on papers that would subcontract the offensive contraceptive mandates to a third party.  The resulting paperwork screen of deniability is the sort of thing bureaucrats find acceptable, but it rings hollow to people of faith, who are not comforted by the offer to wash their hands in red ink.

This is all destined for permanent resolution at the Supreme Court, probably early in the summer.  The powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also granted an injunction on New Year’s Eve, to the New York-based Priests for Life.  Father Frank Pavone, national director of the organization, issued a statement of gratitude for the last-minute ruling:

“We would not have complied with this mandate in any case, as it promotes the very culture of death that Priests for Life works to combat,” Father Pavone said. “We are grateful for this temporary relief and look forward to a permanent injunction once the appeal is fully heard.”

“Our lawsuit was among the very first ones in the country and the necessity to launch it shows that religious freedom in America is in grave danger. We have to take action.”

He made an interesting point about the offensive absurdity of empowering the State to decide whose religious beliefs are worthy of official respect:

Father Pavone said that what the Obama administration has tried to do through the HHS mandate – which he called a “blatant act of tyranny” – is to give the federal government the power to determine what is and what isn’t important in an individual’s religion; that is not the government’s role.

Father Pavone concluded, “There have already been significant victories in the courts against the HHS mandate, and we have no doubt that Priests for Life ultimately will prevail in this historic fight.”

That will surely be a question addressed even more carefully with respect to essentially secular businesses like Hobby Lobby.  Why shouldn’t every business that doesn’t feel like paying for contraceptive benefits announce a religious objection?  How would their sincerity be certified?  One might respond that the government shouldn’t be in the business of issuing mandates that oblige us to ask such questions… but here we are.  Soon the time for temporary injunctions will pass, and we’ll learn once and for all whether the government has the power to weigh and measure religious faith.