WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court on Thursday allowed, at least for now, an evangelical college in Illinois that objects to paying for contraceptives in its health plan to avoid filling out a government document that the college says would violate its religious beliefs.
The justices said that Wheaton College does not have to fill out the contested form while its case is on appeal but can instead write the Department of Health and Human Services declaring that it is a religious nonprofit organization and making its objection to emergency contraception. The college does provide coverage for other birth control.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have denied Wheaton's request and made the college fill out a form that enables their insurers or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.
The order follows the high court's decision on Monday giving Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses with religious objections the ability to opt out of paying for birth control for women covered by their employee health plans.
The Obama administration had already offered a way out of paying for the contraceptives to faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals. They must fill out the document known as Form 700 that enables their insurers or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control. The employer does not have to arrange the coverage or pay for it. Insurers get reimbursed by the government through credits against fees owed under other provisions of the health care law.
Wheaton and dozens of other nonprofits have sued over the form, which they say violates their religious beliefs because it forces them to participate in a system to subsidize and distribute the contraception.
The court said it was not ultimately deciding the issue Thursday and noted that it is likely to take up the nonprofits' cases at some point.
For now, though, it said in an unsigned opinion that the letter to HHS is sufficient and that the government can rely on the letter to ensure that women covered by Wheaton's insurance can obtain emergency contraception at no cost.
In a 16-page dissent, Sotomayor said the procedure outlined by the court is clumsy and unnecessary. "I disagree strongly with what the court has done," she said, joined by Ginsburg and Kagan.
Sotomayor said that the court's order "evinces disregard for even the newest of this court's precedents and undermines confidence in this institution."
Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.
Conservatives say that the majority opinion penned by Justice Samuel Alito for the Hobby Lobby case -- while intended to be narrow in scope -- suggests the court could extend protections for religious freedom even further.
"I hope it's a harbinger of good things, an indicator that people of good faith like the Greens and the Hahns can and should stand up for what the believe in," Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel for The Family Leader, told CBS News.
The Court agreed with the Greens and the Hahns that the contraception mandate placed an undue burden on small for-profit companies like theirs -- but it has yet to rule on whether nonprofits are being unduly burdened. Several religious nonprofits are challenging the law, even though the Obama administration last year found a way to try to accommodate their concerns.