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Catholic groups ask U.S. Supreme Court to block contraception coverage

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organizations on Tuesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block implementation of a part of the Obamacare healthcare law that requires employers to provide insurance policies that cover contraception.

Catholic University of America and non-profits in Michigan and Tennessee were among those filing three separate applications asking the court to exempt them temporarily from the so-called contraception mandate while litigation continues. The mandate, which is due to take effect for the organizations on January 1, is already in place for many women who have private health insurance.

The court did not immediately respond to the applications. There is no set time by which the court is required to act.

The organizations, represented by the Jones Day law firm in the three applications, also said the court could take a bigger step and decide to hear the merits of their claims.

One of the applications is pending before Chief Justice John Roberts while two are before Justice Elena Kagan. The justices are assigned responsibility for emergency applications from different regions of the country. Roberts and Kagan can ask for a response from the government, deny the application outright, or refer the issue to the entire court.

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

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged President Barack Obama to grant a temporary exemption from the contraception mandate while the Supreme Court is considering the issue.

In the letter to Obama, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited other instances in which the Obama administration has shown flexibility on the Affordable Care Act, such as delaying a requirement for employers provide health coverage to their workers.

"I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA," Kurtz said.

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 Caren Bohan and Terry Baynes; Editing by Howard Goller, Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott)