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U.S. justice grants exemption in contraception mandate challenge

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organizations on Tuesday obtained last-minute court injunctions that give them temporary exemptions from a part of the Obamacare healthcare law that requires employers to provide insurance policies covering contraception.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted one temporary injunction to Baltimore-based Little Sisters of the Poor and Illinois-based Christian Brothers Services, plus related entities.

Two different appeals courts granted stays in three other cases that had been pending at the high court, filed by various organizations, including Catholic University of America and non-profits in Michigan and Tennessee, according to a lawyer representing the groups. The lower court action meant the Supreme Court did not need to act in those cases.

The groups were all asking the courts to exempt them temporarily from the so-called contraception mandate while litigation continues. The mandate, which was due to take effect for the organizations on Wednesday, is already in place for many women who have private health insurance.

The organizations accuse the federal government of forcing them to support contraception and sterilization in violation of their religious beliefs or face steep fines.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, requires employers to provide health insurance policies that cover preventive services for women, including contraception and sterilization.

The act makes an exception for religious institutions such as houses of worship that mainly serve and employ members of their own faith, but not schools, hospitals and charitable organizations that employ people of all faiths.

As a compromise, the administration agreed to an accommodation for non-profits affiliated with religious entities that was finalized in July.

Under the accommodation, eligible non-profits have to provide a "self certification" - described by one lower court judge as a "permission slip" - that authorizes the insurance companies to provide the coverage. The challengers say that step alone is enough to violate their religious rights.

In separate cases, the Supreme Court already has agreed to hear oral arguments on whether for-profit corporations have the basis to object to the contraception mandate on religious grounds. The court is due to hear the arguments in March and decide the two consolidated cases by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Howard Goller, Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott)

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