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.
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
“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.”
Since 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.”
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.
“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
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.