Once again, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued outrageous regulations for healthcare workers and institutions that trample on conscience rights and professional ethics and judgment. 

Issued in May, the “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities” final rule requires doctors and hospitals to provide so-called sex reassignment surgeries and treatments, even on children, regardless of whether doctors have ethical objections or believe such treatments are psychologically and physically damaging to the person—as many recent studies have found.

And once again, healthcare workers, hospitals and states are fighting back in a lawsuit that was filed by the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty in a federal district court August 23. Joining the suit are the Franciscan Alliance, Specialty Physicians of Illinois, LLC; the Christian Medical & Dental Associations; and the states of Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Kansas.

When I read about this case in a Register news article it occurred to me that most people don’t know anything about the Franciscan Alliance. It is a relatively small—14 hospitals—regional health system that is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, Immaculate Heart of Mary Province, whose provincial motherhouse is in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were the lead plaintiffs in Zubik v Burwell—a lawsuit against the 2012 HHS mandate that required employers to provide insurance for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs and devices—these courageous Franciscan sisters have a very strong track record of standing with the U.S. Bishops in defense of religious liberty and conscience protections.

It is refreshing to see the witness of these two orders of sisters when some other sisters who have much higher public profiles have been accepting and even promoting the government effort to force healthcare workers and institutions to set aside moral, ethical and professional standards.

For example, before the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed Congress, the U.S. Bishops warned repeatedly (and quite accurately, as it turns out) that the proposed bill would fund abortion and endanger conscience rights. In spite of the bishops’ concerns, several prominent sisters leading Catholic organizations threw their full public support behind the bill, and indeed Catholic sisters were credited by many with giving legislators the moral cover to vote for the bill.

Among those organizations were:

  • The Catholic Health Association (CHA), under the leadership of its CEO, Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity. She was so influential, she was invited to be present when President Obama signed the bill, and she received one of the pens he used.
  • Network, a lobby group of sisters (and sponsor of “Nuns on the Bus”), which sent a letter to Congress pleading for support of Obamacare and falsely claiming that “We represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States.” Among the approximately 60 signatories on the letter were the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the leaders of several prominent religious orders. The letter did not explain how 60 sisters could possibly represent the will of all the sisters in the 300 orders of women religious in the U.S. 

After Obamacare was signed into law, the three bishops who chaired the U.S. Bishops’ committees most involved with the healthcare legislation issued a statement denouncing the moral problems in the law and noting that the Catholic entities who supported the law had caused “confusion and a wound to Catholic unity.”

For its part, the Franciscan Alliance showed its support for the bishops and disdain for the CHA by terminating its longtime membership in CHA and demanding a refund of its dues—one of only two Catholic health systems to do so.           

Then, in 2012, when the Obama Administration issued its controversial “contraception mandate” on Feb. 10, the U.S. Bishops rejected what was simply a change in wording but not in practice. And again, the CHA praised the government proposal, as did the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.           

The Franciscan Alliance responded to the 2012 mandate not with praise, but by joining in one of the lawsuits filed by other religious organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and EWTN, several Catholic dioceses, and even some secular businesses to challenge the government’s interference with religious liberty.           

The President/CEO of Franciscan Alliance, Kevin Leahy, let the Leadership Conference of Women Religious know in a February 14, 2012, letter that their support of the mandate would cause serious problems for Catholics unity and credibility.

Leahy wrote: “A public statement by a Catholic organization supporting the mandate that forces religious organizations to finance their employees' contraceptives, sterilizations, and drug-inducing abortions plays right into the White House's transparent tactic of dividing the Church and, thereby, neutralizing the political voice of the Bishops as the leaders of the Catholic population . . . . Once marginalized as a social force, the Catholic Church's position as a moral and social conscience for the Country will quickly be diminished. . . .”

Now, in 2016, the Franciscan Alliance is again taking a principled stand by joining the lawsuit against the HHS “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities” final rule. Like the Little Sisters of the Poor, the health system’s sponsors, the Franciscan Sisters, are humble sisters who go about their apostolate quietly and efficiently and do not seek the limelight. Nor would they want to be compared to other sisters who have disagreed with our bishops over healthcare policy.           

I appreciate their humility and sensitivity, but I think it’s important to call attention to the witness and courage of these sisters for taking on what no doubt will be a grueling battle. The sisters are a reminder to us that if all Catholics stood together in support of the teaching role of our bishops, the Catholic Church would be a powerful voice in our culture for protecting religious liberty and professional ethics for people of all faiths.

Let us pray for the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration and their employees in this effort, as well as for their ongoing apostolates of health care and Catholic education. Godspeed, sisters!