Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who filed a legal challenge to the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate that has drawn national attention, took their case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Dec. 8, the panel heard oral arguments for Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, a key free exercise case that could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last June, in another closely watched free exercise case, the justices ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain owned by a Christian family that filed a legal challenge to the HHS mandate. The 10th Circuit had also decided in favor of Hobby Lobby.  The legal arguments on both sides have addressed both the high threshold and the limits of constitutional and statutory protections for plaintiffs in religious freedom cases. 

After the circuit panel heard the oral arguments today, Little Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the order, issued a statement that  criticized the government’s efforts to force the sisters to violate their religious beliefs or pay massive penalties.

"The government forces us to either violate our conscience or take millions of dollars that we raise by begging for the care of the elderly poor and instead pay fines to the IRS,” Mother Loraine added, in a reference to the large fines that would be imposed on the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits that refuse to comply with the mandate.

"We are not seeking special privileges.  The government exempts huge corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us–we are simply asking to carry on our mission to serve the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years.”

Mark Rienzi, the senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented the Little Sisters during the oral arguments before the 10th Circuit, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had already provided the Little Sisters with a Dec. 31, 2013 emergency injunction, when they faced a looming deadline for compliance with the mandate.

“A year after losing at the Supreme Court, the government’s aggressive pursuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor continues. Untold millions of people have managed to get contraceptives without the involvement of nuns,” said Rienzi in a statement. 

“The idea that the most powerful government in the world cannot come up with a way to distribute these products without forcing the Little Sisters to participate is ridiculous.”

The Becket Fund, a public interest group, also represents the Eternal Word Broadcasting Network in its legal challenge to the HHS mandate. The Register is a service of EWTN.