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Responding to the Supreme Court order blocking the implementation of President Obama's controversial Affordable Care Act for a group of Catholic nuns, the Department of Justice Friday claimed once again that the nuns are exempt from providing contraceptive coverage.
In its court filing Friday, the Justice Department restated its argument that the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order of nuns who take care of the needy and dying elderly, just needs to certify that they don't want to provide contraceptive coverage and thereby leave the decision to a third-party administrator.
"Applicants have no legal basis to challenge the self certification requirement or to complain that it involves them in the process of providing contraceptive coverage," the government's filing claimed.
Lawyers for the Catholic group once again contested the administration's claim, filing a 17-page brief saying Justice Sonia Sotomayor's order saved the nuns from having to choose between violating their faith and facing penalties. Self-certification amounts to "deputizing a third party to sin on their behalf," they argued.
"The government demands that the Little Sisters of the Poor sign a permission slip for abortion drugs and contraceptives, or pay of millions in fines," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and lead counsel for the nuns. "The Sisters believe that doing that violates their faith, and that they shouldn't be forced to divert funds from the poor elderly and dying people they've devoted their lives to serve."
Justice Sotomayor, who on Tuesday issued a stay on the requirement at the request of the Colorado-based Catholic group, had given the administration until Friday to respond to the Supreme Court.
After Friday's filings, Sotomayor is yet to make a decision.
The high court order on Tuesday came just hours before the administration began forcing some religious-affiliated groups to provide health insurance covering birth control and abortion-inducing drugs or face heavy fines on Jan. 1.
Along with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order also affects religious health benefit providers, Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust, according to the Becket Fund.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel also blasted the administration after the latter's filing Friday.
"The Little Sisters of the Poor should be spending its time and resources helping the poor, not having to fight the Obama Administration over a clear-cut violation of its right to free exercise of religion," said the group, an international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.
President Obama has never told the truth about Obamacare in general or the abortion mandate in particular, the group added. "Little Sisters of the Poor cannot simply sign a form to alleviate the violation of its religious conviction. Signing a form noting its objection is a shell game. While the Little Sisters of the Poor may not have to directly pay for abortion, the religious group still has to indirectly pay for abortion through its insurance administrator."
Becket Fund's Rienzi noted that the federal government has started the New Year the same way that it ended the old one: "trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs."
The lawyer said the administration's argument was contradictory.
"The government now asks the Supreme Court to believe that the very thing it is forcing the nuns to do – signing the permission slip – is a meaningless act," he said. "But why on earth would the government be fighting the Little Sisters all the way to the Supreme Court if it did not think its own form had any effect? The government's brief offers no explanation for its surprising insistence on making the Little Sisters sign a form the government now says is meaningless."
The government's brief filed Friday seeks to "keep the Court out of the issue, which would leave hundreds of religious organizations subject to massive fines for following their religion," Rienzi said.
There are currently 91 lawsuits challenging the contraception mandate.