Few knew she suddenly ruled against Obamacare’s HHS mandate. But they sure noticed her dancing in Times Square that night.

Nobody knew it was coming. So how odd it was to see the breaking news that Justice Sonia Sotomayor had just ruled to delay the Obamacare birth control mandate in th e waning hours of New Year’s Eve.

Sotomayor acted on a request from an organization of Catholic nuns in Denver, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. Its request for an emergency stay had been denied earlier in the day by a federal appeals court.

The government is “temporarily enjoined from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Sotomayor said in the order.

Sotomayor, who was in New York Tuesday night to lead the final 60-second countdown and push the ceremonial button to signal the descent of the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, gave government officials until 10 a.m. EST Friday to respond to her order.

I see this not three hours before that midnight ball drop in Times Square, not knowing she’s there. I’m watching Twitter and Facebook and online news sites erupt with word about the ruling. And then I see her dancing in Times Square.

What just happened?!

Becket Fund explains.

Tonight the Little Sisters of the Poor received a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court protecting them from the controversial HHS contraceptive mandate. The injunction means that the Little Sisters will not be forced to sign and deliver forms tonight authorizing and directing others to provide contraceptives, sterilizations and drugs and devices that cause abortions (see video).

”We are delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order protecting the Little Sisters,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel for the Becket Fund. “The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people–it doesn’t need to force nuns to participate.”

The order was issued by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is the Justice assigned for emergency applications from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Justice Sotomayor also ordered the federal government to file a brief in response to the Little Sisters’ application.

Prior to the order, preliminary injunctions had been awarded in 18 of the 20 similar cases in which relief had been requested.

”Virtually every other party who asked for protection from the mandate has been given it,” said Rienzi. “It makes no sense for the Little Sisters to be singled out for fines and punishment before they can even finish their suit.”

The Little Sisters are joined in the lawsuit by religious health benefit providers, Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust. The Plaintiffs are also represented by Locke Lord, a national law firm, and by Kevin Walsh, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

To date, there are currently 91 lawsuits challenging the unconstitutional HHS mandate.

In fact, one expert told me Monday that he had expected the administration to drop the thing after winning the 2012 election, and admitted surprised that they’re as dug in as they are in pressing something so oddly ungrounded and without any merit whatsoever.

The Chicago Tribune editors published this editorial following Sotomayor’s ruling.

The administration has set out a complicated standard for whether a company or organization should be exempt from these rules. On one end stand for-profit corporations, which aren’t exempt. At the other end, churches and some other religious institutions, which are excused. In the middle are many groups that have a religious affiliation and a faith-based mission, such as Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals, and the Little Sisters of the Poor in Colorado.

Earlier this week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, complained in a letter to Obama that while the administration had “relaxed the rules” for many Americans’ health plans, “one category of Americans … has been left out in the cold: Those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply” with the contraception mandate.

That provision, he added, “harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith.”

The administration has made numerous exceptions to the rules of Obamacare — including delay in the insurance mandate for employers and many individuals. About a year ago, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would draw a distinction between religiously affiliated employers and secular employers. But it still sought a guarantee that their employees would have contraceptive coverage.

We’re not arguing against insurance coverage of contraceptives. But a government mandate that religious organizations violate the tenets of their faith is an unconstitutional reach.

Right. As they conclude, Obamacare is the law of the land. But the constitutional protection of religious freedom is more deeply and historically embedded in this country’s foundation, and there’s no defensible reason why it might be denied – or even challenged – now.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....