Justice Sotomayor Blocks Part Of Birth Control Mandate

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The Supreme Court justice issued a decision Tuesday night that's putting part of President Obama's health insurance law in doubt. Groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged are suing to block the law, saying it violates their religious freedom.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. Last night, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer presided over the raucous New Year's Eve countdown in Times Square. But before that, she was working, issuing a ruling that puts into doubt part of the Obamacare health insurance law. A portion of the law was supposed to take effect today. It would offer insurance for birth control to workers in businesses affiliated with religions. Sotomayor temporarily blocked it from being enforced on an order of nuns who manage several nursing homes. The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver is one of many groups suing to block the law. They say it is a violation of their religious rights.

We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Johnson to discuss what this might mean. Good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What was this group's objection to the law? Obviously, they're a Catholic group, and they don't believe in birth control.

JOHNSON: Yeah. They're an order of nuns that operates nursing homes and homes for low-income elderly, not just in the U.S., but all over the world. And they felt that this requirement imposed on them an undo burden and obligation on their religious rights. The Obama administration it took that into account in crafting the law, and that it offered some objections and exemptions for groups such as this. They just need to sign a piece of paper, essentially, that says they're a nonprofit group, and they have some religious objections to the law. But that wasn't enough for the Little Sisters of the Poor, so they sued, along with many other groups.

MONTAGNE: Now, how does this fit into the question of religious freedom?

JOHNSON: Renee, this case and many others out there now turn on something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It's a law that pretty much says that the government or the state should not impose an undo or substantial burden on someone's exercise of religion. And it's been used successfully by prison inmates to wear their hair and to eat certain foods. It's certainly a focus of new interest and part of the Obamacare debate, now, as well.

MONTAGNE: And, Carrie, of the many lawsuits over this issue, some include private, for-profit businesses with owners who are religious. Does this ruling of Justice Sotomayor's affect those cases?

JOHNSON: So, Renee, this is just a temporary stay. It applies to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver. But many other organizations are watching this case, because they, too, have filed suit based on this issue. And it's important to note: The Supreme Court has already accepted a couple of cases, including one filed by the owners of Hobby Lobby, a for-profit business who object to this contraception provision on religious grounds, and the High Court is going to hear that case later this term.

MONTAGNE: And how, by the way, did this end up coming out late on New Year's Eve?

JOHNSON: So, what happened is that many of the groups that are suing over this provision of the Affordable Health Care Act tried last night to get courts to temporarily enjoin or block enforcement of the provision, because the law takes effect January 1st. Many courts, lower courts agreed. The lower court in Denver did not agree. So the Little Sisters of the Poor took their case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and Justice Sotomayor acted, as you mentioned, just a few hours before she was to preside over the dropping of the ball in Times Square for New Year's.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, this is a temporary stay. So what is the next step, here?

JOHNSON: Great question. The justices asked the Obama administration to respond by Friday at 10 AM. So we are going to be seeing more action on this later week.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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