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: Sensitive locations, not ‘sanctuary’

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11: Msgr. Bernie Schmitz preaches the homily during the announcement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish as a diocesan shrine on December 11, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

With the election of President Donald Trump, many immigrants are uncertain of their future in America. The situation has ignited a national conversation about immigrants and their legal status.

The term “sanctuary” has been making waves in the headlines recently after Denver immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra sought assistance at a local Unitarian church for fear of being deported. The term itself has largely been adopted by the media to describe cities where immigrants cannot be questioned about their immigration status and locations where immigrants can seek refuge and be safe from arrest.

While the so-called “Muslim ban” has been garnering a lot of media attention, there’s another piece of the conversation that’s equally as pertinent; that of the immigrants who are already living in the U.S.; those who have fled their home country in search of something better, established their lives here — and many of which are of Latino descent.

The fear among many Latinos is still prevalent, as many wonder what will become of their residence here in the U.S. under a Trump presidency.

“For those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home and apply for re-entry,” President Trump said in an Aug. 31 speech in Phoenix, Ariz.

The law doesn’t give definition to “sanctuary” but instead describes places where immigrants are safe from any sort of enforcement action by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as “sensitive locations.” A 2011 memorandum distributed by ICE outlines that sensitive locations include, but are not limited to: schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues, mosques or other institutions of worship, the site of a funeral, wedding or other public religious ceremony and public demonstrations, such as a rally or march.

The memo states that enforcement actions are prohibited from taking place in any of these locations without prior approval by an ICE supervisor. In this event, supervisors are to “take extra care when assessing whether a planned enforcement action could reasonably be viewed as causing significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location.”

The policy does, however, call for exigent circumstances in which enforcement actions can be carried out without prior approval. These include: matters of national security or terrorism, an imminent risk of death, violence or physical harm to any person or property, the immediate arrest of individual(s) that present an imminent danger to public safety, or an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to an ongoing criminal case.

Should any of these situations arise, the memo instructs ICE agents to “conduct themselves as discretely as possible, consistency with office and public safety, and make every effort to lift the time at or focused on the sensitive location.”