Justices will give the Little Sisters of the Poor their day in court
The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a challenge from religious organizations who say the government’s requirement that their health plans provide coverage for contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.
The high court ruled last year, in the Hobby Lobby case, that the Health and Human Services contraception mandate violates for-profit businesses’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But the new challenge examines how religious-operated groups, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor and some colleges and dioceses, who employ lay people, have to comply with the contraception mandate.
The Obama administration crafted an indirect way for religious groups that do not automatically get an exemption, such as churches, to provide coverage: They have to inform their insurer of their objection, and the insurer has to provide the coverage directly and its own expense.
Objectors insist that doing so, even through an act as simple as writing a letter to the Health and Human Services Department, would involve them in the mechanism to the point that they would be, according to Catholic moral theology, complicit in the provision of contraception.
In the first place, they say, signing a form or writing a letter would be a “trigger” that sets the process of providing contraceptives in motion.
“All the available compliance methods would make them morally complicit in grave sin,” said a brief filed with the Supreme Court earlier this year by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
According to Politico, the high court had eight petitions on this issue. “There are also conflicting rules between the circuit courts: four appeals panels ruled for the Obama administration. But one, the 8th Circuit in St. Louis, sided with the religious groups,” the news outlet said. “The court is likely to hear the challenge in the spring and issue a ruling before the end of its term in June.”
The Becket Fund, a law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, says one of the clients they are representing in the case, the Little Sisters of the Poor, face “tens of millions of dollars in IRS fines because they cannot, according to their faith, include contraceptives in their employee health plan.”
“The Court’s decision will finally resolve the crucial question of whether governmental agencies can, wholly without legislative oversight, needlessly force religious ministries to violate their faith,” the Becket Fund said in a statement.
Learning the news this afternoon, Helen M. Alvare, a former spokeswoman for the United States Bishops Conference who has been leading an effort against the HHS mandate, told Aleteia, “This is going to be a make-or-break year for women to express both their solidarity with religious freedom, for all of the reasons religious freedom is essential to human freedom…but also because, in the case of the HHS Mandate…because the religious actors here really know the meaning of women’s freedom.”
The Supreme Court has consolidated the Sisters’ case with other Becket clients, such as Priests for Life, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “It is ridiculous for the federal government to claim, in this day and age, that it can’t figure out how to distribute contraceptives without involving nuns and their health plans.” said Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi.
He added that the government should not be allowed to say that the Sisters “aren’t ‘religious enough’ to merit the exemption that churches and other religious ministries have received.
A Becket Fund statement explained the Sisters’ objection:
The Little Sisters, who care for more than 13,000 of the elderly poor in the U.S., had no choice but to appeal to the Supreme Court due to the government’s refusal to exempt them from the HHS mandate, which is currently in its 9th unacceptable iteration. The mandate forces the Little Sisters to authorize the government to use the Sister’s employee healthcare plan to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs – a violation of their faith – or pay massive fines, which would threaten their religious mission (watch video). The Supreme Court entered a temporary order protecting the nuns in January, 2014, but the government has continued litigating, asking lower courts to remove that protection.
Plaintiffs, including Thomas Aquinas College in California, have already encountered opposition like that of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ruled against the challengers last November. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Cornelia T. L. Pillard opined that the accommodation did not impose a substantial burden.
“All plaintiffs must do to opt out is express what they believe and seek what they want via a letter or two-page form,” she wrote. “That bit of paperwork is more straightforward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations’ compliance with law in the modern administrative state.”