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High court intervenes on HHS mandate

WASHINGTON (BP) — A U.S. Supreme Court justice granted an order of Roman Catholic nuns a last-minute reprieve from the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate, providing foes of the requirement another in an overwhelming series of wins.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction Dec. 31 to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver and other Catholic organizations. The injunction prevents the federal government from enforcing the controversial mandate for the time being. Sotomayor, who handles emergency applications from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, gave the Obama administration until Jan. 3 to respond to her order.

The injunction, issued the day before the mandate was to go into effect for the Catholic organizations, brought to 19 the number of injunctions granted to nonprofit groups that have challenged the mandate in court, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. An injunction has been denied in only one suit brought by a nonprofit.

Sotomayor’s order followed by only four days a victory in a Houston federal court for two Baptist universities. East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University won a Dec. 27 injunction against the mandate. A week earlier, GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention won an injunction against the regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The abortion/contraception mandate, which is a rule helping to implement the 2010 health care reform law, requires coverage of such drugs as Plan B and other “morning-after” pills that possess a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which — in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 — can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

Although churches and closely related ministries are exempt from the mandate, many Christian universities, children’s homes and other ministries were not exempted and instead were in danger of being forced to provide abortion-causing drugs and devices through a poorly conceived “accommodation” or incur crippling penalties.

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, applauded Sotomayor’s decision.

“The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people — it doesn’t need to force nuns to participate,” Rienzi said in a written statement.

“Virtually every other party who asked for protection from the mandate has been given it,” he said. “It makes no sense for the Little Sisters to be singled out for fines and punishment before they can even finish their suit.”

The Becket Fund represents the Little Sisters, as well as East Texas Baptist and Houston Baptist universities.

Another Becket Fund lawyer, Eric Rassbach, said of the injunction for the Baptist schools, “The government doesn’t have the right to decide what religious beliefs are legitimate and which ones aren’t. In its careful opinion, the court recognized that the government was trying to move across that forbidden line and said, ‘No further.'”

In its opinion, the federal judge in Houston specifically rejected the government’s argument that it can evaluate the universities’ beliefs: “The religious organization plaintiffs have shown a sincerely held religious belief that the court cannot second-guess.”

Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, also said, “The government has enforced the health care reform law very unevenly, handing out exemptions to those it sees as its allies. Perhaps the worst part of the government’s approach is that it seems to have decided that religious institutions are the only ones not to get an exemption.”

Two HHS mandate cases involving for-profit plaintiffs — Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties — are set to be argued before the Supreme Court this term, possibly in March.

For-profit and nonprofit corporations have filed a total of 91 lawsuits against the mandate, according to the Becket Fund.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode and Erin Roach, assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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