Many of us stayed up to midnight last night and watched the ball come down in Times Square. If you were still sober enough to notice, the person triggering the dissent was none other than Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It turns out that that was not the only thing that she was doing on New Year’s Eve. Late Tuesday with only hours to go before January 1st — and the activation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — Sotomayor granted a stay requested by Catholic-affiliated groups to prevent the implementation of part of the ACA to require them to supply contraceptive services to employees in violation of their religious beliefs. The decision follows a refusal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to issue a stay. The stay order by Sotomayor was requested from Catholic nuns running the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver and now joins a stay issued earlier by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The decision guarantees that no one will have morning after regrets today in allowing the law to be implemented without a final resolution of the religious freedom claims. Sotomayor could still lift the stay since she gave the Obama Administration until 10 am EST on Friday to respond to the order. Until then, the government is “temporarily enjoined from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”
The decision is a victory for the Becket Fund, which argued that “the ‘accommodation’ still forces the Little Sisters to find an insurer who will cover sterilization, contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices.”
The stay makes sense given the Court’s decision to hear similar arguments in the Hobby Lobby case discussed earlier. The case involves objections from businesses and individuals like David Green, founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, who insist that the Act’s required support for contraceptive services violates religious rights. Two cases were accepted: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (13-354); and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius (13-356).
Under the ACA, non-for-profit religious corporation have an exemption. However, Hobby Lobby is a for-profit company that is run according to the family’s religious beliefs. These new Catholic-affliated groups are not parts of the Church but educational institutions like Catholic University and other types of enterprises.
While the Obama Administration arranged for insurers to pay for such services for religious objectors, that compromise would still require the businesses to sign off on the payment for services in contradiction to their beliefs. Such stays are significant legally because they are granted on a view that the party is likely to prevail on the merits. Earlier a D.C. Circuit panel split 2-1 in granting a similar stay. Judge David S. Tatel dissented in the case, concluding “[b]ecause I believe that appellants are unlikely to prevail on their claim that the challenged provision imposes a ‘substantial burden’ under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I would deny their application for an injunction pending appeal.”
Putting aside that standard, the decision could reflect an accommodation for those members who granted cert in Hobby Lobby. The decision freezes the status quo and, if not reversed after Friday, would allow the Court to proceed to the merits in the Hobby Lobby case without having chaos over whether and how the provision can be enforced. That case is expected to be argued in March and decided by summer.