Little Sisters sees ray of hope in Obamacare court battle

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WASHINGTON – A statement from government lawyers that health plans could be modified to provide contraceptive care for women under special circumstances may bring an end to a Supreme Court fight over whether organizations that object to providing such services on religious grounds must offer coverage anyway, advocates for religious groups said Wednesday.

“The government, in its brief, admitted that it did have less restrictive ways to get the coverage to people,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said during a briefing for reporters Wednesday. “Under federal civil rights law, that’s really the end of the case, once the government admits it has less-restrictive approaches available that can work.”

The revelation came in papers filed earlier this month in response to a rare request from the U.S. high court for additional information from both sides in the case, Rienzi said. But the government argued that single-coverage plans as suggested by the Little Sisters wouldn’t solve the problem.

“Reliance on such policies would not work,” wrote Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the Washington Times reported Wednesday. He said some states have rejected single-benefit policies and some insurers refuse to offer them.

The fight centers on a federal mandate that requires religious nonprofit organizations to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortions even when doing so would violate their faith-based principles. The case is regarded as a challenge to elements of President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The high court asked lawyers for both the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order, and the federal government to provide additional arguments after an initial hearing in March.

The question revolves around whether employees of religious organizations can get contraceptive care from the federal government and not through employer-provided health insurance. In its original briefs, the government contested this possibility as not a good option.

But lawyers for the Little Sisters on Wednesday pointed to a section in the government’s latest brief that says the government plans can be modified.

“The accommodation for employers with insured plans could be modified to operate in the manner posited in the court’s order while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage,” the government’s lawyers wrote.

“We are so grateful that the court asked to hear more about our case,” Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters, said in a statement provided by the Becket Fund, which represents the Sisters. “We just want to focus on our mission of serving the elderly poor as we have for the last 175 years while being faithful to the teachings of our church.”

The organization operates nursing homes mainly for the poor, including one in Somerville. Maguire said Thursday in a Wall Street Journal article that the order faces a $70 million fine each year if it fails to comply with government mandates.

“The federal government already works with state governments to provide contraceptive-only plans through Medicaid, Rienzi told reporters. “It’s not that the plans can’t and don’t exist. They exist.”

“There is a win-win,” he added. “It’s actually really easy: The government can go do what it needs to do and leave the nuns out of it.”

“In the end, everyone wins because the truth is we are all better off if we live in a world where people like the Little Sisters of the Poor can, inspired by their faith, devote their lives to caring for the elderly poor,” he said.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.