It will be the fourth time the Supreme Court has heard a challenge to the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration, and the second case challenging the contraception mandate. In 2014, the court ruled in favor of closely held for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby that objected to providing certain contraceptives.
Arguments are expected to occur during the March sitting. A decision would likely come in June of next year, right in the middle of the presidential campaign.
The groups argue that the contraceptive mandate forces them to either violate their religious beliefs by providing "abortifacients and contraceptives" or pay ruinous fines. They say that a so-called "accommodation" offered by the Obama administration meant to respect their religious objections is not good enough because it still makes them complicit in providing the coverage.
Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters of the Poor during his trip to Washington in September, which the Vatican described as a "sign of support" for the nuns in their challenge against the Obama administration.
"The Little Sisters spend their lives taking care of the elderly poor -- that is work our government should applaud, not punish," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "The Little Sisters should not have to fight their own government to get an exemption it has already given to thousands of other employers, including Exxon, Pepsi Cola Bottling Company, and Boeing. Nor should the government be allowed to say that the Sisters aren't 'religious enough' to merit the exemption that churches and other religious ministries have received."
In legal briefs, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argues that in passing the Affordable Care Act, Congress determined that preventive services for women were "critical to improving public health" and that people were more likely to obtain preventive care when they did not have to pay out of pocket.
Verrilli notes the government has exempted houses of worship, such as temples, mosques and churches, from the mandate but it has declined to do so for non-profit faith based charities, and religiously affiliated educational institutions and hospitals.
Under the accommodation, a religious nonprofit organization must first notify the entity that issues its group health plan or the Department of Health and Human Services that it has a religious objection. After the notification, either the insurance plan or a third-party administrator becomes responsible for providing the birth control coverage directly.
Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women's Law Center, criticized efforts to curb contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
"Women deserve insurance coverage of birth control no matter where they work or go to school," Borchelt said. "It's unfair and harmful for some employers and schools to use their religious beliefs to deny women vital health care that also makes them more economically secure. The Supreme Court must stop these efforts to undermine women's health and ensure that women continue to have the seamless access to birth control that they are entitled to under the law."