Sharp-eyed viewers might have noticed a couple of nuns sitting in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s guest box at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union. They represented the Little Sisters of the Poor who have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to relieve them of a federal health care requirement that they facilitate contraceptive coverage for women. This is more than just a case about the Affordable Care Act. Justices will decide if freedom of religion will survive in an increasingly secular nation.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are a Roman Catholic congregation that cares for the elderly and poor in 31 countries. Their mission includes operating 30 nursing homes in the United States. Little Sisters keep a constant vigil with the dying, striving to assure that no one dies alone. A Little Sister is often the last person an elderly resident sees before death.
Those homes have lay staff for whom the Little Sisters provide group health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, most group health plans must cover contraception for women at no additional cost, but the law contains a “conscience clause” exemption for religious organizations. The Sisters have invoked that exemption, but a regulatory scheme allows their female employees to acquire contraceptives through a third party. The Sisters — and other religious groups — say that still compels them to be complicit in providing contraception, which violates their deeply held religious beliefs.
The Obama administration argues that the Little Sisters are not religious enough to exempt from this scheme. If they do not comply, they will face more than $70 million in government fines issued by the Internal Revenue Service.
Both the federal district court and Tenth Circuit of Appeals refused to offer legal relief to the Little Sisters. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted a temporary injunction before the fines were scheduled to take place in 2013.
Last year, after Sotomayor’s injunction expired, the Tenth Circuit once again ruled against the Little Sisters. The judges went so far as to instruct the Little Sisters regarding their faith, arrogantly assuming they better understood what Catholic faith required than the Sisters and even Pope Francis.
In November, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Sisters’ appeal, consolidating the case with a few others as Zubik v. Burwell.
Sometimes lost in this debate is the fact that many big businesses, such as Pepsi and Exxon, are exempt from Affordable Care Act mandates. There are also exemptions for unions and Congress. Those exemptions do not come with strings attached that compromise core beliefs, and the health plans are not taken over so the government can force them to deliver objectionable services. The Little Sisters deserve no less.
The federal government could deliver contraception to individuals in many ways, and it can do so without forcing a group of nuns to participate. Indeed, it is hard to view the administration’s insistence that religious groups violate their faith to help deliver contraception as anything less than mean-spirited secularism run amok.
Religion is much more than just Sunday morning spirituality. The Little Sisters’ efforts to serve the underserved are grounded in their faith. Those same principles of faith instruct them that many forms of contraception are morally objectionable.
Surely the United States has not become a place where such deeply held belief can be overruled by a health care law. The Little Sisters are upholding the important traditions in our history and principles underscored by the Constitution. Many of the colonies that eventually formed our country were settled by individuals who, in the face of European oppression, refused to compromise their religious convictions and fled Europe to find freedom to practice their faith.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. America will only endure if we protect individual rights from arbitrary government behavior. Our liberties do not come from Washington, D.C. The federal government only has legitimacy when acting on behalf of the people, and forcing any group to act against its conscience or religion does not serve the public good.
The last time the Supreme Court ruled on a case pitting religious freedom against Obamacare — in the Hobby Lobby case — it split 5-4. Justice Sotomayor joined the three liberal justices against religious freedom. Perhaps her involvement in the Little Sisters case and her own Catholicism offer clues that this time religious liberty won’t be so contentious.