Obama to Little Sisters: It’s just a piece of paper

Administration 'blind to religious exercise issue,' say lawyers

Karna Swanson
A Little Sister of the Poor arranges flowers with residents of the order's Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver in this DCR file photo.

When the Obama administration refuted on Friday the temporary injunction granted to the Little Sisters of the Poor protecting them from the controversial Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, the sisters couldn’t be reached for comment. They were at Mass, praying with the elderly residents of their home in Denver.

Within hours, dozens of news stories appeared online that put the sisters at the center of a contentious national debate on what constitutes strong-arming a religious congregation to provide contraceptives and other abortion-inducing drugs to its employees.

The sticking point for both sides is a waiver/authorization form that the Little Sisters must fill out to take advantage of a so-called accommodation for non-profit ministries. The form, however, has a dual purpose—it signals opposition to the mandate, but also authorizes a third-party to provide the services it finds morally objectionable.

“The Little Sisters and other applicants cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf,” stated the Becket Fund, which represents the Little Sisters, in a brief responding to the Obama administration. The group added that the administration is “simply blind to the religious exercise at issue.”

The Obama administration minimalized the importance of the form, enticing the Little Sisters to “secure for themselves the relief they seek” …“with the stroke of their own pen.”

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the nuns, said in a statement Friday that the administration was “trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs.”

If the sisters don’t sign the waiver/authorization form, or if the courts don’t uphold the injunction, they could be subject to devastating IRS penalties that could add up to millions of dollars a year.

After checking back later with the sisters, who run Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver, Mother Patricia Mary stated, “At this point we are not saying anything. We are just kind of waiting … and continuing to work with the elderly.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have served the elderly poor in Colorado since 1917, and the congregation has been in the United States since 1868. They currently run 30 homes for the elderly across the country, and one in Canada, which are characterized by hospitality and a dependence on Divine Providence.

The mission of the Little Sisters began in 1839 when their foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, invited a blind, paralyzed old woman into her home, and cared for her. From that day onward, the Little Sisters have offered “the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family, and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”

Following in the footsteps of Jugan, two Little Sisters go begging daily for basic necessities on behalf of the elderly. This was a practice that Jugan began in the early years of the congregation, thus saving the residents the indignity of having to beg for themselves.

In an interview last fall with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, stated quite clearly that the sisters simply want “to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates our work.”

For more than 100 years, the Little Sisters have been able to do just that here in the United States. The contraceptive mandate, however, puts the ability of the Little Sisters to continue their mission and work in jeopardy.

“All of this is sad and unnecessary,” said Rienzi. “Our federal government is massive and powerful. It can obviously find ways to distribute contraceptives and abortion pills without forcing nuns to be involved.”

Preliminary injunctions had been awarded in 18 of the 20 similar cases in which relief had been requested.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is the justice assigned for emergency applications from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, gave the Little Sisters a temporary injunction Dec. 31, and gave the federal government until Jan. 3 to respond.

After the Obama administration’s request that the injunction be lifted, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty urged Sotomayor to keep the injunction in place as it protects “religious exercise.”

Currently, there are 91 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. The Becket Fund represents: Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, Guidestone, Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network, Ave Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

COMING UP: St. Louis students lend a helping hand to Haiti

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In 2010, a devastating earthquake ravaged Haiti. Just a few months ago, Hurricane Matthew ripped through Haiti, further damaging a country that was in the process of rebuilding. Haiti’s need for help is as pressing and dire as ever.

Students from one local Catholic school are taking the lead and working to raise money to help Haiti from afar. For the 8th grade class of St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville, doing what they can for the people of Haiti isn’t just an act of Christian charity; it’s an act of love toward a people whom they consider to be like an extended family.

The story begins with St. Louis parishioner Wynn Walent, who works for the St. Luke Foundation, a Catholic humanitarian organization founded by Father Rick Frechette in 2000 that’s based in Haiti. Walent lived in Haiti for two years, and while down there in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, he came to know two boys, Vlad and Belony. After a time, Walent decided to adopt the boys.

In 2012, St. Louis and then-principal Karen Herlihy opened the school’s doors to the Haitian boys without hesitation when Walent brought them back to the U.S., and thus began a relationship that has since affected the teachers and students of St. Louis in profound ways, not to mention the lives of Vlad and Belony. Vlad is now in 7th grade, and Belony just started his first year of high school.

“Since day one the staff, students and families of St. Louis have welcomed the boys with open arms,” Walent said. “It’s a very generous community.”

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St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville has a link to Haiti through two of its students, Vlad (pictured) and Belony, who were adopted by St. Louis parishioner and philanthropist Wynn Walent. The 8th grade class, with the help of the whole school, hopes to raise $5,000 by the end of the school year to donate to the St. Luke Foundation, a Catholic humanitarian organization based in Haiti. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

The boys have made quite an impression on the students and teachers of St. Louis. No matter who you ask, they’ll all say that Vlad and Belony “are very humble and have big hearts.” Not only that, many of the students are quick to point out that they’re incredibly talented soccer players.

Ultimately, the students said, Vlad and Belony are like family to the St. Louis community, and they want to help them and their brothers and sisters back in Haiti.

During the school year, each class at St. Louis is required to do some sort of outreach or stewardship project. With a tangible connection to Haiti through Vlad and Belony, the 8th grade class began brainstorming ways they could help those affected by the hurricane. While the 8th graders are currently leading the charge, they hope for it to become a school-wide initiative, with the goal of establishing a more long-term relationship between St. Louis and the St. Luke Foundation.

We’re in such a self-centered world, and I love the idea of kids helping kids and feeling good that they can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

“We’re always looking to see how we can get our children to be involved in projects that take them away from themselves,” St. Louis principal Kathy Byrnes told the Denver Catholic. “We’re in such a self-centered world, and I love the idea of kids helping kids and feeling good that they can make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Luckily for them, they have a direct line to Haiti and the St. Luke Foundation through Walent, Vlad and Belony. Walent can articulate the needs of the foundation to the students, and they can raise the money accordingly. Their goal is to raise $5,000 by the end of the school year to donate to St. Luke, but they hope to exceed that goal. As of this writing, they’ve raised nearly $3,000.

The school has also started a Razoo crowdfunding page for anybody to donate to, and one of the first donors was none other than Belony.

The St. Luke Foundation started with simple clinics in 2000 and has since grown to entail two hospitals, three clinics and 32 schools. They provide jobs for 1,000 Haitian people, and Walent said that it is 100 percent Haitian led. The organization empowers the Haitian people to help themselves and provides them the necessary resources to do so.

The resolve of the St. Louis Catholic School to raise money to give to Haiti is a testament to their reputation of being, as Byrnes says, “The little school with the big heart.”

More information

To learn more about Father Rick Frechette, the founder of St. Luke, visit http://www.stlukehaiti.org/watch

To learn about St. Louis’ efforts to support St. Luke, visit stlukehaiti.org/stlouis

To contact Wynn Walent about the work in Haiti, please email wynn.walent@stlukehaiti.org