A draft of a new rule protecting religious adherents was leaked to the press earlier today. The 125-page ruling, if issued and finalized, would temporarily protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups from an Obama-era Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious adherents to choose between crippling fines and violating their consciences.
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters of the Poor in May 2016, ordering the government not to fine the Little Sisters and telling the lower courts to get the government to accommodate religious beliefs. This interim rule would fulfill that Supreme Court ruling.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are a religious order that serves the elderly poor. The Obama administration’s rule required them to provide abortifacients and birth control in violation of their religious beliefs or be fined up to $70 million each year. In their five-year battle over the rule, they have repeatedly won court victories against this requirement. Courts routinely found the mandate, which the Obama administration kept revising, to be an onerous and unnecessary restriction on religious liberty.
“At long last the United States government acknowledges that people can get contraceptives without forcing nuns to provide them,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with Becket, a civil liberties firm representing the Little Sisters. “That is sensible, fair, and in keeping with the Supreme Court’s order and the president’s promise to the Little Sisters and other religious groups serving the poor.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor were just one of many groups seeking relief from the mandate that violated religious liberty. Alliance Defending Freedom represented five Christian universities that sought legal relief at the Supreme Court last year. Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor said, “The government has put forward a common-sense solution that ensures that Americans won’t be forced to violate their deepest convictions while maintaining multiple ways for people to obtain the drugs in question if they want them.”
Trump promised Catholic leaders in October that he would help the Little Sisters and other religious groups achieve relief from the regulation. At the end of April, career Department of Justice attorneys requested a 60-day delay for a court-imposed stay in the challenges to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, leading many religious liberty advocates to wonder if the promise would be broken.
At the beginning of May, however, President Trump issued an executive order telling three cabinet departments to protect the Little Sisters and other religious ministries from the HHS mandate. HHS Secretary Tom Price said in response that HHS would take action “in short order” to protect religious adherents. The executive order would also mean that the departments stop fighting the Little Sisters in courts around the country.
“With this executive order,” Trump said in a public ceremony, “we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty.”
While a reprieve from the mandate would be another victory for the Little Sisters, their court battle would continue since subsequent administrations could issue new rules returning the fines.
The Obama administration’s versions of the rule contained exemptions for large corporations such as Exxon and Visa, government-run plans for the disabled, and military families’ plans. However, it did not exempt religious charities serving the poor. The new rule, if accurate, updates accommodations for religious groups that choose to use it due to sincere religious or moral objections to the mandate.
Abortion rights groups and Democrats in Congress pledge to fight the protections for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious groups, even though they didn’t fight exemptions to the Affordable Care Act granted to corporations or other groups.