Tag Archives: Obama administration

Liberty … hanging by a thread

The Little Sisters of the Poor are happiest when they do what they love most: caring for the elderly in the 27 nursing homes they operate across the United States.


Pope Francis meets with the Little Sisters of the Poor during his visit to the United States on Sept. 23

But that happiness has been strained by their legal battle against the Obama Administration, which began in 2013. Their lawsuit – Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell – stems from the order’s opposition to the Administration’s Health and Human Services contraception mandate.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on March 23. The nuns’ attorneys argued that they must not be forced to pay for contraception, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs for their employees – things the HHS mandate would force them to do.

“This is the first time we have ever done anything like this, going to the Supreme Court,” said Sr. Constance Viet, Communications Director for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “It’s definitely outside of our comfort zones as nuns. So we are praying very much. We even held a live-streamed holy hour on March 10.”

 A fake accommodation

Sean Fieler

Sean Fieler

“America has made a unique contribution in the world for modeling religious liberty — in particular accommodating people of different faiths,” said Sean Fieler, a member of Legatus’ New York City Chapter and a board member of the Becket Fund, the firm defending the Little Sisters. “But what we have seen in the last 50 years is a stepping back. What’s happening now is not religious liberty as understood by the Constitution. Forcing the Little Sisters to provide contraception is very upsetting.”

The Little Sisters employ about 3,000 people across the country. If they lose this case — which will likely be decided in late June — they must pay fines of $70 million per year, which is 40% of their operating budget. The nuns would have to close their nursing homes, throwing hundreds of poor elderly men and women into the streets — all because of the government’s contraceptive rule, which none of their employees ever requested.

In order to pacify religious non-profits like the Little Sisters, the federal government came up with an “accommodation” last year whereby employers could tell the government that they morally object to the mandate. The government would then tell the health plan issuer to provide the contraceptive coverage, basically inserting itself into the employer’s health plan.

“We get asked, ‘Why don’t you just sign the paper?’ But this is basically a permission slip that allows our health plan to provide these services,” Sr. Constance explained. “It’s cooperation with something which is morally objectionable.”

littlesisters-1Since there are health exchanges available, employees who really want contraception coverage could simply opt out of the Little Sisters’ health plan and get contraceptive coverage from an exchange.

“There are many cases in a diverse country like the U.S. where there can be conflicts because of religious beliefs,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund. “But in this case, it’s obvious that the government can do this another way.”

Grassroots opposition

In fact, the HHS mandate doesn’t even cover one-third of Americans. Companies like Exxon, Visa and Pepsi are exempt because their health insurance plans were “grandfathered.” They already existed before the mandate.

The U.S. military, which is the single largest employer in the world, is exempt from the mandate. Several large cities — including New York — are also exempt. None of these groups has a moral issue with contraception. But since the Little Sisters of the Poor do, they and many Catholic analysts struggle to understand the Obama administration’s logic for picking on a group of nuns.

Helen Alvaré

Helen Alvaré

“With just his signature, Obama can undo this,” said Helen Alvaré, founder of Women Speak For Themselves (WSFT), a grassroots organization fighting the contraception mandate. “When I think of what the U.S. government has spent on litigation to defend the mandate against over 300 plaintiffs — why didn’t they spend it all on free contraception if it was that important to them?”

The Obama administration issued the HHS mandate in 2011 after recommendations they received from the Institute of Medicine (IOM). It was later revealed that nearly every member of the IOM had ties to abortion advocacy groups. None of them was pro-life.

“The HHS mandate has distilled the message that sexual expression without children is more important than religious freedom,” Alvaré explained. “But this ethic is really harmful to women, and women strongly support religious freedom, so the government has it upside down.

“Religious freedom — which involves searching for God and living in accordance with God’s will — is central to human happiness and freedom. But to take something which immiserates women — a sexual life which is not tied to marriage or children — and say that it is the essence of happiness is a level of lying I just can’t tolerate.”

From this frustration, WSFT was born. The group currently has over 41,000 supporters nationwide. The group asked supporters to send good wishes to the Little Sisters on Valentines Day. The nuns received over 800 messages saying, “I stand with the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

Freedom at stake

Hundreds of religious and lay people rally in front of the U.S. Supreme in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom on March 23 (Becket Fund photo)

Hundreds of religious and lay people rally in front of the U.S. Supreme in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom on March 23 (Becket Fund photo)

With the Becket Fund, WSFT organized a March 23 rally at the U.S. Supreme Court. Over 160 women religious from different communities showed their support. That same day, there were peaceful rallies in front of Little Sisters’ facilities in 15 states.

“I can tell you that amid the anxiety and concern of our case, it has been a very beautiful experience realizing how many people across the country are supporting us,” said Sr. Constance.

The Supreme Court has received 43 amicus or “friend of the court” briefs on behalf of the Little Sisters.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly on Feb. 13, those involved with the case mourned the loss of someone they were confident would support the Little Sisters in their case.

“It was certainly very sad when I heard of his passing,” said Sr. Constance, “but I choose to believe that we have an extra intercessor in heaven. We have a long history of depending on God’s providence for our survival. But He sometimes waits until the last minutes to push us beyond our comfort zone. We have to renew our confidence in God.

“I look back on our history as a source of courage,” she continued. “This kind of struggle for religious freedom is written into our DNA. Our founder St. Jeanne Jugan founded our order in the aftermath of the French Revolution when religious rights were trampled on. Our sisters have never given up.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Learn more: becketfund.org/little-sisters-poor-v-burwell littlesistersofthepoor.org

Assessing Obama’s assault on religious liberty

Fr. Thomas Berg contends that Catholics must resist Obama’s immoral mandate . . .

Fr. Thomas Berg

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a final rule on Jan. 20 requiring all insurers to include free coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization procedures and prescription contraceptives in their insurance plans — including those sponsored by employers. All of these “preventive services” are instrumental to engaging in intrinsically evil actions, as consistently taught by the Catholic Church.

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced that the administration would pursue an “accommodation” to address objections to the HHS mandate. He did so by principally removing the employer from the equation, shifting the cost of the objectionable coverage from the employer to insurance companies.

The outcry from a broad spectrum of Americans of both political parties, a plethora of religious affiliations, and most notably from the Catholic bishops under the leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has been powerful. With great effect, the bishops have insisted that the administration’s assault on the religious liberty of some is an assault on the religious liberty of all. Nor will the bishops tolerate a solution that exempts Catholic institutions while leaving tens of thousands of religiously minded and conscientious individual employers without recourse.

Proponents of the mandate have suggested that insurance companies could rely on health cost savings that would accrue due to the availability of the “preventive services.” But the vast majority of analysts believe that the very real costs of providing “free” services in insurance will be passed on to the employers in form of higher premiums. Now three months into the controversy, experts can envision no scenario relying on insurance to cover these services which disentangles religiously affiliated employers sufficiently to satisfy Catholic moral concerns. In greater detail, here’s why.

The government intends to force insurers to cover these products and services even though the contract between the insurer and employer excludes them. Thus, from the perspective of a Catholic employer, if it chooses to offer health insurance to its workers, it will know in advance that this coverage pays for the problematic products and services. The government is leaving no way around this problem because it is insisting that the mechanism for providing “free contraception” to the public must be the insurance system.

Consequently, it remains the case that when a Catholic employer chooses to offer insurance, it will, by definition, trigger insurance coverage for the very same objectionable products and services. That is, employees will have access to these proscribed services and products in virtue of the contract between employer and insurance company. Thus, the Catholic employer is left in the position of either accepting to be a key cog in the process of facilitating access to gravely immoral practices or of not providing health insurance at all to its workers.

That “being a key cog in the process” is termed in Catholic moral theology as “material cooperation” (as opposed to “formal cooperation,” which would mean willfully being a cog in an evil endeavor — like the get-away driver in a bank robbery). Conscientious Catholic employers who wish to be faithful to Catholic moral teaching would certainly not approve of their insurance policies covering these services (that would be formal cooperation), but by acquiescing to the mandate they would find themselves in this position of materially cooperating. The Church teaches that material cooperation can at times be licitly tolerated in view of very serious reasons. Is the provision of health insurance to employees a serious enough reason to allow for this degree of complicity?

The evident moral good of providing health insurance to employees (with all the attendant benefits) does not supersede the grave moral requirements of upholding religious liberty, protecting the life of the unborn and witnessing to the world about the right ordering of human sexuality. While the provision of health insurance by employers is certainly in full harmony with Catholic social teaching, it is not — nor have the bishops of this country ever taught that it is — a positive moral obligation of Catholic employers. Of course, in 2014 and beyond, employers will have even less of an obligation to provide insurance to their workers as the government will have set up by then an alternative insurance access point in every state.

But what a tragedy it would be for any Catholic employer to have to face such a choice. Before it comes to that, it is our hope, rather, that reason will prevail through the voices of concerned citizens all across this country. We must continue to reject empty offers of “accommodation” and demand rescission of this unconstitutional, unlawful and immoral regulation.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is a member of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law and professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.