In a decision that drew an unusually fierce dissent from the three female justices, the Supreme Court sided Thursday with religiously affiliated nonprofit groups in a clash between religious freedom and women's rights.
The decision temporarily exempts a Christian college from part of the regulations that provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The court's order was brief, provisional and unsigned, but it drew a furious reaction from the three female members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. The order, Justice Sotomayor wrote, was at odds with the 5-to-4 decision on Monday in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which involved for-profit corporations.
"Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "Not so today."
The court's action, she added, even "undermines confidence in this institution."
Monday's decision and the order on Thursday were dual blows to the Obama administration's efforts to provide contraception coverage, said Walter Dellinger, who was acting United States solicitor general in the Clinton administration.
"Before the Hobby Lobby ruling women had guaranteed contraceptive coverage as part of their employment health insurance," he said. "After today, it is clear that their access to contraception is by no means guaranteed given the administrative complexities the court has now imposed upon" the Department of Health and Human Services.
Justice Sotomayor said the majority, which acted on an emergency application, had not only introduced pointless complexity into an already byzantine set of regulations but had also revised its Hobby Lobby decision.
That decision, Justice Sotomayor said, endorsed an arrangement allowing nonprofit groups to sign a form that would transfer the delivery of free contraception under the Affordable Care Act to others. But Thursday's order rejected the mandatory use of the forms for Wheaton College in Illinois.
Justice Sotomayor said the ruling reached beyond Wheaton and could lead to similar results at many other nonprofit religious organizations that have similar concerns. "The issuance of an injunction in this case will presumably entitle hundreds or thousands of other objectors to the same remedy," she said.
Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Wheaton, said, "The court rightly recognized that Wheaton's religious community should be allowed to practice its faith free from crushing government fines."
The college objected to coverage of intrauterine devices and so-called morning-after pills, saying they were akin to abortion. Many scientists disagree.
The court did not announce how most of the justices had voted, which is typical when it issues unsigned opinions. In the Hobby Lobby case on Monday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan in dissent.
The majority opinion there, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seemed to suggest that the forms could play a role in an arrangement that was an acceptable alternative to having employers pay for the coverage. Under the arrangement, insurance companies that receive the forms pay for the coverage on the theory that it costs no more to provide contraception than to pay for pregnancies.