WASHINGTON — After a federal appeals court ruled that the Little Sisters of the Poor must obey the federal contraception mandate, the sisters have announced that they are appealing to the Supreme Court.
Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor, emphasized that the religious women “dedicate our lives to serving the neediest in society, with love and dignity.” For 175 years, the order has cared for the elderly poor and dying throughout the world.
“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,” she said in a July 23 statement. “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.”
The sisters are among several hundred plaintiffs that have challenged the federal contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health-insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
Employers who fail to comply with the mandate face crippling penalties. In the case of the Little Sisters, the fines could amount to around $2.5 million a year, or about 40% of the $6 million the sisters beg for annually to run their ministry.
Met with a wave of protest, the contraception mandate has undergone a number of revisions. However, the sisters say that it still requires them to violate their beliefs.
Because the Little Sisters of the Poor are not affiliated with a particular house of worship, they do not qualify for the religious exemption to the mandate. The federal government has argued that it has sufficiently provided for the religious freedom of the Little Sisters and other religious organizations through an “accommodation,” under which the faith-based employers can pass the burden of providing the objectionable coverage to insurers, who must then offer it directly to employees without cost.
The government says that providing contraception coverage is ultimately free for insurance companies, because birth control results in better health for women and lower pregnancy rates, resulting in lower overall costs for insurers.
Critics, however, reject this claim, arguing that the costs of the coverage will ultimately be handed on to the employer in some way. Several religious organizations have also said that they still object to signing a form that passes the burden of providing the objectionable content to another party.
“In America, judges and government bureaucrats have no authority to tell the Little Sisters what is moral or immoral,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead attorney for the Little Sisters.
“And the government can distribute its drugs without nuns. It has its own health-care exchanges that can provide whatever it wants.”
On July 14, the 10th Circuit Court ruled that because the Little Sisters had the option of signing the form, they failed to show that the mandate required a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion.
Last year, the Little Sisters had received temporary protection from the mandate under two orders from the U.S. Supreme Court: one order from the full court and the other from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who oversees the section of the country where the sisters’ case originated. The orders had protected the Little Sisters from mandate penalties while their case was working its way through the court system.
The Supreme Court has also ruled directly on the mandate. In June 2014, it struck down the mandate as it applied to Hobby Lobby and other closely held for-profit companies.
In its July 14 decision, the 10th Circuit said that the reasoning in the Hobby Lobby case did not apply in the Little Sisters’ case because the sisters were a nonprofit and therefore fell under the terms of the “accommodation,” which were not offered to Hobby Lobby as a for-profit company.
The 10th Circuit’s order also applies to Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, the Catholic organizations through which the Little Sisters obtain their health coverage.
Now, the Little Sisters are asking the Supreme Court for protection. The Becket Fund and Supreme Court advocate Paul Clement (the same legal team that won the Hobby Lobby case) filed the petition on behalf of the Little Sisters, as well as a handful of other groups.
“The government has lost every single time they have made these arguments before the Supreme Court, including last year’s landmark Hobby Lobby case,” noted Rienzi. “One would think they would get the message and stop pressuring the sisters.”
This is the fifth petition on the contraception mandate that the Supreme Court has received. The court is expected to consider the petitions later this year. If it takes up the case, a final decision would be expected next summer.