WASHINGTON - Catholic organizations made a last-minute effort Tuesday to get the Supreme Court to block portions of President Barack Obama's health care law that will force them to provide health insurance for students and employees that includes birth control.
Several organizations, including the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, Catholic University and the Michigan Catholic Conference, asked justices to block the law until their arguments are heard. Parts of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, go into effect on Wednesday.
On that day, "a regulatory mandate will expose numerous Catholic organizations to draconian fines unless they abandon their religious convictions and take actions that facilitate access to abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization for their employees and students," lawyer Noel J. Francisco said in appeals to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan.
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about the new health care law, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.
The law requires employers to provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.
The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the constitutionality of the core of the Affordable Care Act, saying its insurance mandate and the tax penalty enforcing it fell within the power of Congress to impose taxes.
The Obama administration crafted a compromise, or accommodations, that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.
That isn't enough, Francisco said.
"In short, under the accommodation, applicants must authorize their third party administrators or insurance companies to provide the very products and services they find morally objectionable," he said. "Suffice it to say, the 'accommodation' does not resolve applicants' religious objection to participation in this regulatory scheme."
Roberts and Kagan handle emergency requests for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Sixth Circuit. They can act by themselves or involve the rest of the court.
Federal judges have refused to issue stays in these cases, and the appeals courts have not ruled on the request for an injunction.
Francisco said 11 federal judges have entered permanent or preliminary injunctions against the birth control mandate as it applies to nonprofit religious organizations, while six have refused to do so.
Francisco said that if Catholic organizations don't comply with the law, they face "fines of $100 a day per affected beneficiary" and if they drop their health care coverage, "they will be subject to an annual fine of $2,000 per full-time employee after the first 30 employees, and/or face ruinous practical consequences due to their inability to offer a crucial health care benefit to employees."
He added: "In short, applicants are faced with a stark choice: violate their religious beliefs or pay potentially crippling fines."
It was not immediately known when the justices would act.
More than 90 million individuals participate in health plans excluded from the scope of the mandate, Francisco said. "The government, however, has steadfastly refused to create a broader religious exemption, either for individuals seeking to run their businesses in accordance with their faith or for nonprofit religious organizations beyond houses of worship," he said.
The justices already have agreed to rule on whether businesses may use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover birth control for employees. The court will consider two cases involving Hobby Lobby Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania company that employs 950 people in making wood cabinets.
Hobby Lobby won in the lower courts while Conestoga Wood Specialties lost. The combined cases probably will be argued in late March with a decision coming by summer.
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