The Little Sisters Are Headed to the Supreme Court—Again


February 11, 2020

There is nothing quite so depressing as politicians jerking nuns around. The Little Sisters of the Poor are returning to the U.S. Supreme Court for a third time. They’ve already twice defended their right not to comply with the Obamacare requirement that employers provide free contraceptive coverage in their health insurance.

The Little Sisters are a Roman Catholic charitable order that cares for the elderly and poor by operating 30 nursing homes across the country. Those homes have lay staff for whom the Little Sisters provide group health insurance. Everything was fine until the Obama administration and certain state governments got it into their heads that the Sisters ought to ignore their beliefs and include contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in their insurance coverage.

Litigation about contraception under the Affordable Care Act has been going on almost since the inception of Obamacare. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held companies—mostly family-owned businesses—are exempt from the contraceptive mandate.

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At the same time, the Little Sisters were in the courts seeking protection for religious organizations. The Supreme Court issued an injunction in 2013 protecting the Little Sisters, but that didn’t stop the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals from ruling against them. The Sisters faced tens of millions of dollars in fines if they did not comply.

So, back to court they went. In 2016, the Supreme Court heard their case and unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling. The order would not have to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in its health care plans. The Little Sisters’ religious liberty was secure.

At least it should have been.

In 2018, the Trump administration issued a new rule that contains an exemption for religious ministries. It was written specifically to support the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling.

This did not sit well with activists. Several states—including California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—sued the federal government and targeted the Little Sisters in particular. Pennsylvania and New Jersey soon obtained a nationwide injunction against the rulings by sympathetic judges protecting religious objectors from the contraceptive mandate. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this injunction. Now the whole thing is headed back to the Supreme Court.

The states argue that the Little Sisters are not religious enough to qualify for an exemption. This, of course, is preposterous. The Little Sisters follow the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching regarding life and contraception. Forcing them to provide contraception, including abortifacients, would force them to abandon one of their core beliefs. Their only alternative would be to abandon their mission of helping the elderly and the poor because they could no longer have employees with insurance.

In fact, this dispute emerges from an ideological groundswell on the left that targets religious groups. The Little Sisters face a secular tsunami because they are an easy target—one that will garner headlines.

Lawmakers and attorneys general in states targeting the Little Sisters remain tone-deaf and blind to the fact that most Americans support religious freedom. On the rare occasion that they do admit as much, it’s only to twist it into an attack on people who “cling to guns and religion.”

The Little Sisters are not trying to stop the states from providing free contraception: they are asking that they not be forced to provide it themselves. Oddly enough, California and Pennsylvania already have programs to provide contraceptives to women who want them, but they still want to force nuns to provide them, too.

It’s also striking that while states push to punish religious groups that don’t want to provide contraception, they are perfectly content to let large corporations that write hefty campaign checks slide. Pepsi, Exxon, Visa and others are exempt from the current contraception mandate under Obamacare. If exemptions are appropriate for those who worship at the altar of “woke capitalism,” why not also for the Little Sisters who worship at the altar of Christ?

The First Amendment is supposed to protect all people of faith, including nuns, from punishment for following their beliefs. The ability of Americans to act on their conscience, guided by their religious convictions, is an essential element of our society.

In 1966, Muhammad Ali refused his draft induction, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his boxing titles. When he took a stand for his beliefs in court, he was not cheered and supported. Rather, he fought to the Supreme Court. In 1971, the Court reversed the initial decision against Ali.

In the years after that landmark decision, the nation and the world came to recognize that his struggle for religious liberty was right and just. People now embrace Ali as The Greatest and respect his position as a conscientious objector.

The Supreme Court likely will once again side with the Little Sisters. Perhaps in years and decades to come, as with Ali, Americans will honor them for their struggle.

They are applying the Gospel to the less fortunate. This effort is a calling, a vocation, and a mission embedded in their hearts and minds. The Sisters’ love for God flows from and through faith, hope and charity. They have made Christ’s dictum their guiding principle: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Separation of Church and State works both ways. The Church won’t dictate what the state does. If democratically elected governments choose to provide contraceptives, so be it, at least until the next election. At the same time, the state must not infringe upon the religious practice of individuals in a free society. Let the Little Sisters practice what they preach in peace.

Photo credit: Getty Images


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