Nuns seek relief from Obamacare mandate

By Leo Hohmann

Little Sisters of the Poor is a 175-year old religious order that ministers to the elderly and provides for their needs.
Little Sisters of the Poor is a 175-year old religious order that ministers to the elderly and provides for their needs.

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday in the Little Sisters of the Poor’s legal challenge to the Obamacare mandate that non-church religious groups provide contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices at no cost to their employees.

An appeals court ruled against Little Sisters last year and upheld the so-called “abortion pill mandate” contained in President Obama’s signature health reform law.

The 90-minute hearing will begin at 10 a.m., at which time the high court will also hear arguments on six other cases representing Christian colleges, businesses and ministries such as Priests for Life and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington.

The Little Sisters are a 175-year-old religious order who have vowed to care for the elderly poor. The Little Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from a government mandate that already exempts one in three Americans, large corporations like Chevron, Exxon, and Pepsi and the U.S. military.

“The High Court must decide whether the government can force the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with this mandate and provide services that violate their faith even though these services can easily be obtained through the government’s own exchanges,” said a statement from the Becket Fund, which is representing the Little Sisters.

Little Sisters of the Poor has been ministering to needy senior citizens for 175 years.
Little Sisters of the Poor has been ministering to needy senior citizens for 175 years.

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Becket clients Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities as well as five other religious nonprofits in Zubik vs. Burwell. Becket also represents the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Little Sisters will argue that the Obamacare mandate violates their “free exercise” rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

On Jan. 11 the nonprofit Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief on behalf of Little Sisters.

“Little Sisters of the Poor and many other religious, nonprofit organizations cannot and will not participate in killing innocent children,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The federal government should never force Christian ministries to violate their faith in order to continue their mission. The Obama Administration’s HHS mandate compels Little Sisters of the Poor to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs or face crippling fines that would end their ministry. The Court must reaffirm America’s historic commitment to religious liberty or restrict its free exercise for decades to come.”

LIttle Sisters3This case brings into focus the importance of replacing Justice Scalia with a Justice who will adhere to the original meaning of the Constitution, Staver said.

“If the Court splits 4-4, then there is no final decision,” he added. “That would mean the Christian groups, including Little Sisters of the Poor, will lose.

If the court splits, the justices could decide to rehear the cases when Scalia’s seat is filled.

Alliance Defending Freedom is also involved in the case, representing four Oklahoma Christian universities in Southern Nazarene University vs. Burwell and one Pennsylvania Christian college in Geneva College vs. Burwell. Students from two of the universities will also participate in the “Women Speak for Themselves” rally, which will take place outside the Supreme Court as oral arguments begin.

“Religious organizations have a legally and constitutionally protected freedom to peacefully operate according to their beliefs without fear of severe punishment by the government,” said ADF Senior Counsel Gregory Baylor. “These schools simply want to continue to operate according to the faith on which they were founded and the faith that still inspires them to serve their communities and the world today.”

ADF is using the hashtag #LetThemServe to promote its cause of religious freedom.

Forced to plead for basic freedoms

The fact that the case has even gone this far is a sad commentary on the state of religious freedom in America, said Kerri Kupec, communications director for ADF.

“Nuns, priests, and Christian schools shouldn’t be forced to go to the Supreme Court to plead for freedoms that every American is promised,” Kupec said. “The government should be allowing these organizations to focus on serving the poor, the elderly, and the next generation. The freedoms guaranteed under federal law and the First Amendment are civil rights, not special gifts that the government can give or withhold when it chooses.”

A broad array of parties—including more than 200 members of Congress and 20 states—filed briefs in January with the Supreme Court in support of the colleges and other nonprofits who oppose the mandate and its religious non-profit compliance mechanism. The mandate forces employers, regardless of their religious or moral convictions, to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception through their health plans under threat of heavy penalties.

The Family Research Council released a statement Tuesday in advance of the case:

“The question in this case is whether the HHS contraceptive-coverage mandate and its so-called ‘accommodation’ violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, by forcing religious nonprofits to act in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, when the government has not proven that this compulsion is the least restrictive means of advancing any compelling interest.

“Under the mandate, nonprofit employers still remain the legal gateway for such objectionable services as potentially abortion-causing drugs for their employees through the employer’s health insurance company. These religious nonprofits do not want to be forced to be complicit by providing contraceptives, sterilization, and drugs and devices that can kill an embryo.”

Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., a former nurse for 40 years and chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, also weighed in Tuesday with a statement on the importance of the Little Sisters’ case.

“You know, President Obama famously called his healthcare law ‘A new set of rules that treat everyone fairly and honestly.’ We see very clearly today that nothing could be further from the truth.

“Under Obamacare’s coercive HHS mandate, the Little Sisters of the Poor face an impossible choice: either deny their deeply held beliefs and provide coverage for drugs they deem to be morally objectionable, or face up to $70 million in government penalties.

“Meanwhile, corporations like Exxon and Pepsi are exempted from the mandate altogether. Only in Washington would anyone call this ‘fair.’

“I have met with the Little Sisters of the Poor and I was privileged to lead more than 200 Members of Congress in submitting an amicus brief on their behalf. I can tell you that there is precious little in this world that is more pure or worthwhile than their ministry.”

The Little Sisters never wanted to be at the center of a political fight. They simply wanted to continue providing care for the most vulnerable in our society as they have done for more than 175 years in a way that is consistent with their faith, Black said.

“If we won’t protect that fundamental right, then the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom is no longer worth the paper it is printed on.”

Black said she will personally attend oral arguments in a showing of support for the Little Sisters.

Alveda King, director of Priests for Life’s African American outreach program Civil Rights for the Unborn, said the lawsuit she and Priests for Life are bringing before the Supreme Court brings to mind the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 60s.

Alveda King
Alveda King

King will take part in a prayer rally Tuesday night in front of the Supreme Court, and will be among the speakers who will address a rally organized by Women Speak for Themselves in front of the court at 10 a.m. Wednesday

“When I was growing up, the government denied my basic civil rights because of the color of my skin,” said King. “Today, the government is trying to deny my God-given right to practice my faith for reasons that also make no sense. The oral arguments to be held before the Supreme Court this Wednesday in the case that Priests for Life, I, and many others are bringing against the HHS mandate is really a continuation of the Civil Rights movement I knew as a child.”

This case is about our basic rights as Americans, King said.

“It’s about all of us,” she said. “If bureaucrats are allowed to dictate what we must believe, we are not free. And make no mistake, the HHS mandate is not a rule passed or even envisioned by Congress, it’s a regulation drawn up by unelected, unrepresentative people who think that their agenda is more important than our freedom. The government was wrong in the 1950s and 60s – it’s wrong again today.”

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