Updated 2:51 p.m. ET, 1/1/2014
(CNN) – The Supreme Court has temporarily delayed key requirements of the Affordable Care Act impacting religious-affiliated groups, accelerating another high-stakes legal test for the sweeping law championed by President Barack Obama.
In a surprising twist just hours before the start of the New Year when most major rules of Obamacare were set to take effect, Justice Sonia Sotomayor exempted two Catholic Church-affiliated nonprofits from having to provide contraceptive coverage to employees of face fines for non-compliance.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, a charity congregation of Roman Catholics in Denver, and the Illinois-based Christian Brothers Services, objected on moral and religious grounds and were excused from having to comply until Friday at least.
Sotomayor set that date as the deadline for the federal government to file a legal response.
The White House on Wednesday expressed support for the measure.
The justice's action was narrowly applied but it could ultimately impact dozens of religious groups and businesses that have mounted legal challenges in recent months, depending on how the court ultimately handles the matter.
The contraception issue has been a major sticking point in the law, Obama's signature diplomatic achievement, that overall has been the subject of enormous legal and political controversy.
Although enacted in 2010, key requirements of the Affordable Care Act are just now kicking into gear following years of fierce political and other turmoil that included a Supreme Court ruling that found it constitutional and a flawed rollout of its online enrollment process this past fall.
Congressional Republicans and others who bitterly oppose Obamacare call it government overreach, a burden on business and the economy, and a regulatory disaster. Repeated attempts to overturn it have failed yet Republicans continue to press the issue in the courts and on the campaign trail.
The church and state issue now in the spotlight involves rules negotiated last year between the Obama administration and various outside groups.
Under the law, churches and houses of worships are exempt from the contraception mandate.
But other nonprofit religious-affiliated groups, such as church-run hospitals, parochial schools and charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor, must either provide no-cost contraception coverage or have a third-party insurer provide separate benefits without the employer's direct involvement.
A White House official on Wednesday said the Obama administration was confident the rules "strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage."
The matter handled by Sotomayor was separate from other emergency appeals filed on Tuesday by Catholic archdioceses in Michigan, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. They were not acted on because lower courts had already issued injunctions temporarily blocking enforcement.
These organizations are all seeking delays around the employer-contraception requirement, saying in their court filing it would force them "to choose between onerous penalties or becoming complicit in a grave moral wrong."
Moreover, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, pressed Obama directly on the issue.
He asked him in a letter to delay the mandates impacting religious groups and some businesses.
Kurtz pointed to other delays the administration has made, such as putting off until 2015 the requirement for all employers with more than 50 workers to provide health coverage.
The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear two cases involving for-profit corporations that contend their religious liberty is violated by the law.
The White House said in November that it believes a requirement on contraceptives is "lawful and essential to women's health."
– CNN's Eric Marrapodi, Jim Acosta, and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.
Please give us freedom. The 1st amendment was created to protect this exact freedom of religion.
Why are thse employers being allowed to force their Catholic belief onto their non-Catholic employees.
Are these Catholic employers concerned that their single male employees might be receiving coverage for viagra or other similar drugs because sex outside of marriage also is against their belief.
It's shameful that the church doesn't trust it's members to just not accept or use contraception. Instead of trusting it's followers to heed church doctrine, it's using the government to enforce it's religious wishes.
We must preserve the right to oppress women!
The pope has been saying a lot of promising things- a real breath of fresh air. Now let's see if he can put some positive action to work. He should repeal the stupid ban on contraception; it would save millions of live from STD's like AIDS, especially in Africa and India. There are other christian sects that have no problem with it. It ain't 10,000 BC where we need to go out and "be fruitful and multiply"... we've done more than enough of that.
What’s more irritating…
Obamacare – or – Religion?
Religions should be out lawed. There I said it. They teach a made up history. They teach social philosophy and reform based on their religious agenda (then self appoint themselves as "the authorities" and claim the "right to rule" those around them based on their "religious knowledge" and "self appointed authority" then play the victim when others will not knuckle and play "their" game with them. When they employ others, it is a business situation, not a religious situation, your EMPLOYEE should not be subject to YOUR religious practices. If you are in a business situation - making sure that your employess have access to all procreation options does not violate your religious and moral beliefs it offends you and you want the right to practice your religion on others. Its an attempt to control society to meet your emotional religious needs.
So the Catholics appeal to Catholics on the Supreme Court. Seems like, No separation of Church and Supreme Court, to me
We are just so stupid in this country. No one is talking about the real problem here, which is that employers should get out of providing health insurance. What your plan covers and who you buy it from is none of your employer's business.
No other country is dumb enough to rely on employers to provide health insurance like this, and we didn't either until employers started offering health care benefits during WWII to get around wartime wage controls. Now Americans just accept this as the way things should work even though no other country does this and no one expects employers to provide auto insurance or homeowner's insurance.
Schools, unions, employers, churches, none of these should be controlling people's health insurance. It's none of their business and it creates a variety of problems. But instead of tackling the real problem we're arguing about whether a church should have to cover birth control in the health insurance they provide. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
So the Church has friends in high places (supreme court) instead of heaven. Seems like we need a separation of Church and Supreme court.
bravo, it will be nice if a unanimous SCOTUS supports the free exercise portion of the 1st Amendment
Little Sisters of the Poor? Perhaps they SHOULD use birth control or become BIG sisters of the Poor. And then more mouths to feed and government support at that point.
Forced religious beliefs upon non-religious vowed employees of these institutions?
-–SC is very smart to catch the pith of the section in LAW, so only used non-profit entities. God bless! If it were for PROFIT–I would strike down. It is a Law.
Time to start taxing all religious based organizations.
Never a better example of selfishness than bitter ole nuns hating on women.
Falling apart and wait until the employer mandate hits just before the elections. Couple this with the appeal to the stupid Obozo lover getting their way with the minimum wage increase and you have anew recession and a whole lot of election wins for the Republicans and hopefully an impeachment for the most corrupt president in history.
What happened to separation of church and state?
How can a law be delayed for some but not for others? Isn't that just a nice way of being allowed to break the law while others must obey? Also, how can you call it the Affordable Care Act when it's not affordable? Sounds like a tax to me with a fancy name.
Can a company owned by a Jehovah’s Witness exempt the employees from blood transfusions? Can the employees of Scientologists be denied coverage for medication to treat Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia, and other psychological disorders?
We should all be exempt.
-for non-profit entities only, catch the pith of the section in Law. SC is wise.
The contraceptive mandate is a big overreach by Obama and the Democrats. Government should not be forcing people to go against their consciences.
@Dan Tx – too bad you want to force your religious beliefs on everyone else....oh....I guess that door only swings one way....funny how that works with progressives....