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: PHOTO GALLERY: Celebrate Life march and rally 2017

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On Saturday, Jan. 14, hundreds gathered at the state capitol for the Celebrate Life march and rally. A crowd filled with pro-life advocates both young and old marched down the streets of downtown Denver in what was an impressive show of pro-life support. Masses were held at several parishes in Denver beforehand, including the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and the rally featured addresses by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, Real Life Catholic founder Chris Stefanick, and former Planned Parenthood employee turned pro-life advocate Abby Johnson.

Denver Catholic photographer Andrew Wright was there to capture the joyful occasion.

All photos by Andrew Wright

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The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was filled to standing room only for the Mass prior to the rally and march.

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An overwhelming number of young people came to the march, proving that a new generation of pro-life advocates is on the rise.

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Archbishop Aquila addressed the crowd gathered outside the capitol, urging them to not be afraid to stand up for life in the public square.

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Real Life Catholic founder Chris Stefanick riled the crowd with an enthusiastic talk before the march. He also pointed out that the term “life” does not apply solely to the unborn; he said the march was also a protest for immigrants, the homeless and the sick.

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Abby Johnson, who has gained fame for becoming a fierce pro-life advocate after being employed by Planned Parenthood, also addressed the crowd. She noted that the pro-life movement has changed and is no longer simply about defending the unborn; she called it a “pro-woman” movement.

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The wide array of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds at the march showed that the act of defending life crosses boundaries and is a sign of universal love and care.

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Doves were released before the march as a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

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The march filled the length of the streets of Denver and spilled over onto the sidewalks. Police escorts were there to ensure the march could progress safely and uninterrupted.