By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court gave a Christian college in Illinois a temporary exemption from birth control coverage required by President Barack Obama's health reform law, days after ruling that for-profit employers can opt out for religious reasons.
The court said on Thursday in a split 6-3 decision by the justices that Wheaton College, which has objected on religious grounds, did not have to comply with the government compromise process for nonprofit groups with religious affiliations while litigation continues, an unsigned order showed.
On Monday, the court said on a 5-4 vote that closely held for-profit corporations could obtain an exemption based on the religious beliefs of their owners. By granting Wheaton College's request, the court indicated that its decision does not dictate the outcome of litigation involving dozens of nonprofit groups.
Under the healthcare law, known as Obamacare, employers must provide health insurance policies that cover preventive services for women, including contraception and sterilization.
The administration had already crafted a compromise for religious-affiliated nonprofits that allows them to "self-certify" to their insurance carriers in a form that they object, on religious grounds, to providing contraception coverage. But various nonprofits, including Wheaton, said the act of signing the form also infringed on their religious rights.
The court said in its order that the college could instead send a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to state its religious objections. Employers would still be able to obtain contraceptive coverage via their health plans, the court said.
The court reached a similar outcome in January in a case brought by an order of Roman Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan. Sotomayor said the college had failed to meet the requirements for an injunction, adding that "thinking one's religious beliefs are substantially burdened – no matter how sincere or genuine that believe may be – does not make it so."
The unsigned order said the court's action "should not be construed as an expression of the court's views on the merits."
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Richard Chang)