Sonia Sotomayor, the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice to be appointed by President Barack Obama, dealt Obama’s signature achievement, the new health insurance law popularly known as Obamacare, a potentially serious setback Tuesday.
As midnight drew near, Sotomayor stood in Times Square with Ryan Seacrest as she pressed the ceremonial button that began the annual ball-drop, counting down to the New Year. But just a few hours earlier, she put a temporary halt to a requirement of the new law that says employers must provide birth control insurance coverage to their workers, even if those employers have religious affiliations that cause them to oppose the use of contraception.
Catholic groups and some fundamentalist Christian organizations contend that requiring birth control coverage violates their religious freedom. Sotomayor’s ruling, called a “stay” because it blocks the provision from taking effect only until the full Supreme Court can hear the case and issue its own decision, came in a case brought by a group of Colorado nuns, The New York Times reports.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver earlier denied the nuns’ request to delay the law which was supposed to take effect on New Year’s Day — as soon as the ball dropped. But Sonia Sotomayor, a Catholic herself of Puerto Rican descent, has jurisdiction over the 10th Circuit. So it was her call to reverse the lower court’s ruling and put the brakes on the birth control insurance requirement.
She gave the Obama administration until Friday to make its argument against the stay, according to NBC News.
The Obama administration earlier crafted a compromise that allowed religious organizations to opt out of the requirement if they find a third-party insurance provider that will make birth control available to their employees who want it.
The nuns, “need only certify that they are nonprofit organizations that hold themselves out as religious, and that because of religious objections, they are opposed to providing coverage for some or all contraceptive services,” the Justice Department argued before the Appeals Court Monday.
“The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” White House Spokesperson Jay Carney has said, explaining the administration’s position.
But though the lower court agreed, Justice Sonia Sotomayor didn’t buy the Justice Department argument. Her ruling comes as a surprise, because as an Obama appointee, and since 2009, a reliable member of the court’s liberal voting bloc, Sotomayor would be expected to side with the Obama administration on its most important piece of legislation.
The so-called “buffer” offered by the administration’s compromise is designed to insulate religious groups from being forced to violate their beliefs by providing contraceptive coverage directly. At the same time, it allows employees to obtain birth control coverage through an outside insurer contracted by the employer.
But the nuns and other religious groups say that is not enough. According to the nuns, they would still be responsible for providing birth control:
“The Sisters would also be required to sign a form that triggers the start of that coverage. In good conscience, they cannot do that. So the ‘accommodation’ still violates their religious beliefs.”
Though Sonia Sotomayor has agreed with the religious groups for the time being such “stay” rulings are often a technical matter. How Sotomayor will vote when the matter comes before the full court remains uncertain.