Supreme Court Declines to Hear Catholic Schools’ Health-Law Challenge, For Now

By Mark Walsh — March 31, 2014 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an early-stage appeal from a group of Roman Catholic schools on whether religiously affiliated non-profit organizations must comply with the so-called contraceptive-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and several specific Catholic schools in and around the nation’s capital have raised a religious objection to the health-care law’s requirement that health-insurance plans cover certain forms of contraception.

While the Affordable Care Act exempts churches from the requirement, other religious organizations, including schools, colleges, and nursing homes, are not exempt. President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to accommodate religious organizations that object to the requirement by having them sign a form so that an insurance company or third-party administrator can handle the contraceptive coverage.

Some religious organizations accepted the accommodation, but many did not, leading to a flurry a lawsuits against the administration. One of the suits was by the Washington Archdiocese, which was joined by the Catholic University of America, and Archbishop Carroll High School in the nation’s capital; Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md.; and Mary of Nazareth Roman Catholic Elementary School in Darnestown, Md.

“The government has promulgated a regulatory mandate that exposes Catholic and like-minded organizations to draconian fines unless they abandon their religious convictions and take actions they believe make them complicit in the provision of abortion-inducing products, contraceptives, and sterilization for their employees and students,” says the Supreme Court appeal filed by the church groups in Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Sebelius (Case No. 13-829).

The Catholic groups’ case was one of several that was the subject of a flurry of activity on Dec. 31, hours before the contraceptive mandate was to go into effect on Jan. 1. In their case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the groups’ request for an injunction blocking the rules from taking effect for the schools and colleges.

The Catholic groups’ main case is pending before the federal appeals court, with arguments in that court scheduled for May 8, so the groups’ decision to seek further Supreme Court intervention “before judgment” was a bit of a long shot.

The Obama administration told the justices in a brief that because the Catholic schools had won an injunction, “there is no basis for short-circuiting the normal course of appellate review” by granting an appeal before judgment.

And on Monday, the justices declined without comment to hear the schools’ case at this point.

In a separate case involving a group home in Denver operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor religious order, a federal appeals court had denied an injunction blocking the contraceptive-coverage requirement. That led to a New Year’s Eve order by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that temporarily blocked the rules from applying to the Little Sisters. A few weeks later, the full Supreme Court issued an order that said the Little Sisters could receive the religious accommodation as long as the group informed the federal government in writing (instead of having to fill out the specific government form). That case remains pending in a lower court.

Last week, the court heard arguments on whether for-profit corporations can raise religious objections to the contraceptive-coverage requirement, in the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. (No. 13-354). It is virtually a certainty that after the federal appeals courts have had a chance to rule on the merits of the religious organizations’ objections, one or more of those cases will make it back to the high court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.