Little Sisters have big win in Supreme Court decision

The Little Sisters of the Poor had a victory at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, nine years into the religious order’s bouts of litigation over the Obama-era “contraception mandate” which obliged employers to provide for contraceptive coverage for employees through their health care plans.

“For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority.

“But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision— have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

In a 7-2 decision, the Court’s majority sided with the sisters in the latest round of lawsuits against them over the mandate, this time brought by the states of Pennsylvania and California, who argued that the exemption crafted by the Trump administration for organizations with religious or moral objections to the mandate shifted the cost of providing contraceptive coverage to the states and was procedurally flawed.

“We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption,” the majority found. “We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects.”

The near decade-long court battle of the Little Sisters of the Poor dates back to 2011, when the Obama administration required employers to provide cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and “emergency birth control” in employee health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Although the Obama administration granted an “accommodation” to the Little Sisters and other objecting religious non-profits, the sisters sued the government in 2013 saying the process still required them to essentially give a “permission slip” for contraceptive coverage to be delivered through their health plans.

In 2016, a divided Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts and instructed both the administration and the non-profits to reach a compromise where cost-free contraceptive coverage could still be offered to employees while respecting the moral objections of religious groups.

In 2017, the Trump administration granted a religious and moral exemption to the mandate for the sisters and other objecting groups, but then the states of Pennsylvania and California filed lawsuits saying that the burden of providing coverage was being shifted onto the states and claiming that the administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act in setting up the exemption.

The Supreme Court took up their case against the states in January, hearing arguments by phone in April following the coronavirus pandemic.

COMING UP: Little Sisters appeal to Supreme Court

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Little Sisters appeal to Supreme Court

Told to either violate faith or pay massive fines, sisters continue to seek religious freedom

The Little Sisters of the Poor will pursue their last hope in the drawn-out legal battle over religious freedom by taking their plea to the Supreme Court.

The order of sisters ask the court for relief from the federal Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires contraception, abortifacients and sterilizations in employee healthcare coverage—a requirement they say violates their religious beliefs.

The Little Sisters and their attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty announced July 23 that they filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear their case and grant them protection from the HHS mandate, a part of the Affordable Care Act.

The decision came shortly after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their claim that the mandate would be a violation of their conscience and that the existing exemption “relieves [the Little Sisters] from complicity.”

However, the Little Sisters argue signing the waiver form to obtain an exemption “would make them morally complicit in sin, would contradict their public witness to the value of life, and would immorally run the risk of misleading others.” The form in fact would authorize a third-party to provide the services they find morally objectionable.

The court told the sisters they could violate their religious beliefs or pay steep IRS penalties estimated around $6,700 a day or $2.5 million a year, according to the Becket Fund.

The Little Sisters care for the elderly poor.

The Little Sisters care for the elderly poor.

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters, said they only want to serve the elderly poor.

“As Little Sisters of the Poor, we dedicate our lives to serving the neediest in society, with love and dignity,” Sister Maguire said. “We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to. We hope the Supreme Court will hear our case and ensure that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives.”

Attorneys filed the petition on behalf of the sisters as well as the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention—all religious organizations that seek protection from the mandate.

“The government has lost every single time they have made these arguments before the Supreme Court—including last year’s landmark Hobby Lobby case,” said Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the sisters, in a statement. “One would think they would get the message and stop pressuring the sisters. The government is willing to exempt big companies like Exxon, Chevron and Pepsi Bottling, but it won’t leave the Little Sisters alone.”

The Becket Fund said the Supreme Court is likely to consider all of the petitions in late September or early October. If the petition is granted, the case could be argued and decided before the end of the court’s term in June 2016.

“The sisters consider it immoral to help the government distribute these drugs. But instead of simply exempting them, the government insists that it can take over their ministry’s employee healthcare to distribute these drugs to their employees, while dismissing the sisters’ moral objections as irrelevant,” Rienzi said. “In America, judges and government bureaucrats have no authority to tell the Little Sisters what is moral or immoral. And the government can distribute its drugs without nuns—it has its own healthcare exchanges that can provide whatever it wants.”

The Becket Fund is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Its recent cases include the landmark case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which the Supreme Court granted a victory to the arts and crafts retailer.