DENVER — The Little Sisters of the Poor have filed the first class-action lawsuit against the federal contraception mandate, saying that it would require them to violate the teachings of their Catholic faith.
“Like all of the Little Sisters, I have vowed to God and the Roman Catholic Church that I will treat all life as valuable, and I have dedicated my life to that work,” said Mother Loraine Marie Clare Maguire, superior of the congregation’s Baltimore province, Sept. 24.
“We cannot violate our vows by participating in the government’s program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs,” she said.
The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver and the Little Sisters of the Poor Baltimore Inc., both nonprofit corporations, are plaintiffs in the suit, as well as “all others similarly situated.”
The sisters, who operate 30 homes for impoverished elderly persons in the United States, could face millions of dollars in IRS fines if they do not comply with government mandates requiring employee health coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause early abortions.
Employers that fail to provide the required coverage face fines of $100 per employee per day. The sisters’ lawsuit is the latest in more than 70 legal challenges that have been filed against the mandate on behalf of more than 200 plaintiffs nationwide.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the class-action suit in federal District Court in Denver on behalf of the sisters and their health-benefits provider, Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust.
The legal group said the IRS fines begin Jan. 1 unless the sisters hire an outside company to provide the objectionable coverage.
While the mandate has an exemption for religious employers, the Little Sisters of the Poor do not meet the narrow criteria to qualify for the exemption. The Becket Fund explained the reason is because, even though the Little Sisters of the Poor are a Catholic institution, they are not affiliated with a specific house of worship.
“The sisters should obviously be exempted as ‘religious employers,’ but the government has refused to expand its definition,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund.
“These women just want to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates their work,” Rienzi said “The money they collect should be used to care for the poor like it always has — and not to pay the IRS.”
The Becket Fund says this is the first class-action suit concerning the mandate, and it will represent hundreds of Catholic nonprofit ministries with similar beliefs. The lawsuit is also the first to represent benefits providers who cannot comply with the mandate in good conscience.
The lawsuit cites the anomaly of the government’s refusal to grant an exemption to Catholic groups, despite other nonreligious exemptions granted to thousands of other plans affected by the 2010 health-care legislation.
Members of the affected class face a “stark choice,” and they “must either abandon their Catholic beliefs” or be “punished by the government with an array of fines and penalties unless and until they comply,” the suit states.
It argues that the mandate violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, since “the threat of such penalties imposes a substantial burden on the class members’ religious exercise.”