Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic group of nuns dedicated to caring for elderly people in poverty, are back in court over Obamacare’s mandate that all health insurance pay for contraception, including abortifacients. They have intervened in a case brought by six states, including California, against the Trump administration. These states are seeking to strip away the ability of groups like the Little Sisters to function within the bounds of their consciences, after a lower court ruled that exemptions to the contraceptive mandate didn’t provide the notice that was legally required.
The Little Sisters have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and on Friday they appeared in court to make oral arguments on the case. The exemption currently afforded to the Little Sisters protects religious groups from being forced to provide contraceptives in violation of their moral and religious beliefs. This case should concern everyone worried about religious liberty.
The stakes are high in State of California v. Little Sisters of the Poor. California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra is standing against a group led by women who have voluntarily chosen to join an order with vows of chastity. This move is nonsensical yet chilling, because it’s clear that this case isn’t about getting health care to women who want or might need it. Rather, this is about imposing an agenda and ideology onto religious people, at any cost.
It’s also burdensome to groups to have to keep defending their rights against repetitive challenges like this, especially after victories that should put the issue to rest. One of the sisters explained the toll this long legal process is taking on them, and what she would like to see happen:
My name is Sister Theresa. I have been a Little Sister of the Poor for 48 years. We Little Sisters follow God’s calling to care for the elderly poor as if they were Christ himself.
I stand here today to ask the court to protect our rights as religious women to live and work according to our faith.
We were so grateful when last year, after a four-year court battle against the federal government, we were finally granted a religious exemption from the HHS mandate.
But now California is trying to take our religious exemption away. We pray that the court will protect our ability to continue serving the elderly poor as we have for over 175 years without being forced to violate our faith.
Larger companies with far more employees than the Little Sisters have received exemptions from this mandate. These companies include secular companies, compared to a religious order like the Little Sisters, who are part of the Catholic Church, which rejects acts that could end the life of an unborn baby.
The Little Sisters’ site explains how common these exemptions are: Exxon, Pepsi Bottling, the U.S. military, Chevron, Visa, and more all have exemptions, with more than one-third of Americans under 65 being part of plans that don’t cover these services. This means tens of millions of Americans currently belong to health insurance plans that don’t provide the same services that Becerra wants to force these nuns to buy.
These issues first came to mainstream national attention with the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which required all new health plans, including those of religious hospitals, charities, universities, and other businesses, to cover reproductive services that could violate the tenets of their faith. This means around 45 million Americans are part of “grandfathered” plans that existed before the mandate and therefore are exempt, allowing companies such as the aforementioned to not only continue to cover limited types of contraception and not cover them at 100 percent, but also to enroll new employees in those plans.
The initial religious exemption covered churches, but not other religious-based groups that could also have a bona fide objection to the nature of some of the required contraceptive services. This eventually gave rise to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court found that closely held religious for-profit companies could also be exempted from the contraceptive mandate.
Protection for the religious seemed even stronger after an executive order from President Trump in 2017, positive HHS statements, and governmental rulings that all pointed toward an increase in religious liberty protections. Following the executive order, the HHS Secretary Tom Price affirmed the president’s stance: “Religious liberty is our country’s first freedom. Americans of faith play a vital role in caring for our most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly and the poor.”
It’s confusing, especially for non-lawyers and laypeople, to understand how cases like this against the federal government can involve other groups, like the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters intervened in the case, or asked to be let in, as a way to protect their legal interests. Protecting their rights to an exemption allows them to continue to serve the poor and elderly without providing contraceptive coverage in their insurance that they don’t want and don’t need.
Becket Fund attorney Diana Verm explains:
The administration issued regulations in an interim final rule, which means it implemented the regulations without asking for notice in comment from the public first. So it implemented it while it asked for notice in comment and it is now considering the comments. Over the course of the mandate this is the 4th time that the government has done this, the prior administration did it three times, implemented the mandate against religious groups without asking for notice in comment first. We’re arguing that if California is going to complain that, they should have complained about the prior times three or four times that the government has done that. California has had multiple opportunities to comment on the mandate and it has never done so, up until this time.
This lawsuit appears even more frivolous when we consider, as the Little Sister’s site points out, there already exists voluntary opt-in contraceptive only policies for women who want or need this coverage. It’s asinine to attempt to force this group of nuns to shift their beliefs and to alter how they’re organized and have been for over a century, in order to pay for birth control, when they don’t want it and other plans already exist to provide it elsewhere.
This is about power, control, and the overreach of a California attorney general. It’s time to leave the Little Sisters of the Poor to their work, to let them go about serving the elderly and impoverished. In the end, that’s what they really want and need.
It’s important for people to be informed about cases like this. Contact your elected officials and let them know that freedom of religion matters to you, and religious liberty is an important right to protect. Pray for the Little Sisters, that their work may continue and they may be able to serve others unimpeded.