Discuss as:

Supreme Court declines to block provision covering contraceptives in health care law

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court declined Wednesday to put a temporary hold on a controversial provision in the new health care law requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Two businesses challenging the act -- the nationwide chain of 500 Hobby Lobby Stores and Mardel, a chain of Christian bookstores -- contended that the law violates their religious freedom. Their legal battle is continuing over the merits of their claim. In the meantime, they asked the US Supreme Court to put a temporary hold on the law, which takes effect January 1, 2013.

On Wednesday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles emergency appeals from the courts where the companies are based, declined to grant an injunction.

In a brief written opinion, she said the Supreme Court has never addressed similar freedom-of-religion claims brought by for-profit corporations objecting to mandatory provisions of employment benefit laws.

"Lower courts have diverged on whether to grant temporary injunctive relief to similarly situated plaintiffs," she said, "and no court has issued a final decision granting permanent relief with respect to such claims."

If the two companies ultimately lose in the lower courts, the justice said, they can still appeal to the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for members of the family that owns the two businesses, based in Oklahoma, told the court that the law will expose them to "draconian fines unless they abandon their religious convictions." 

While they do not object to the provision of insurance coverage for all contraceptives, they do object to coverage for "certain drugs and devices that they believe can cause abortions," their lawyers said.

Dozens of similar lawsuits over the contraceptive provision are working their way through the federal courts.  The Obama administration has delayed enforcement of the requirement until August for qualified religious institutions, and some will be eligible for a permanent exemption.

But no such delays have been granted to businesses that object to the law's requirements on religious grounds.