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Administration to high court: Don't exempt Catholic groups from contraception mandate

The Obama administration on Friday asked the Supreme Court not to exempt Catholic groups from an ObamaCare requirement to offer contraceptive coverage, after the high court gave them a temporary reprieve earlier this week. 

The court filing comes in response to a surprise order -- issued shortly before coverage under the law went into effect -- by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The justice issued a stay late Tuesday preventing the government from enforcing the so-called contraceptive mandate against the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. 

The group of Catholic nuns argues that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates their religious beliefs. To get around the mandate, they claim they'd have to sign a "permission slip" authorizing others to provide contraceptives and "abortion drugs" -- or pay a fine. 

Lawyers for the group made one more plea for emergency relief late Friday, filing a 17-page brief with the court saying the reprieve spared the nuns from having to choose between violating their faith and facing IRS penalties. The brief claimed the government is "simply blind to the religious exercise at issue: the Little Sisters and other Applicants cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf." 

But the Justice Department, responding just before the Friday morning deadline, reiterated its argument that the group has no foundation for its case. The administration says religious nonprofit groups such of this one can certify that they don't want to provide contraceptive coverage. In that case, it would be up to a third-party administrator to decide whether to provide it. 

The DOJ filing noted that the administrator in this case "says it will not provide contraceptive coverage." 

"Applicants have no legal basis to challenge the self certification requirement or to complain that it involves them in the process of providing contraceptive coverage," the administration claimed. 

The Catholic group, though, has argued that even signing the certification form would violate the nuns' beliefs. 

A lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the group, blasted the administration over the filing. 

"The government demands that the Little Sisters of the Poor sign a permission slip for abortion drugs and contraceptives, or pay of millions in fines. The Sisters believe that doing that violates their faith, and that they shouldn't be forced to divert funds from the poor elderly and dying people they've devoted their lives to serve," senior counsel Mark Rienzi said in a statement. 

Government lawyers say the nuns' insurance is a "church plan" that is not required to provide contraception coverage and has decided not to, so they have no legal basis to complain. 

It is not known when Sotomayor will make a decision. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.