A group of Catholic nuns who care for the elderly poor, the Little Sisters of the Poor, urged the Supreme Court on Monday to protect them from $70 million in government fines for refusing to violate their Catholic faith. Religious sisters should not be forced to choose between caring for the poor and obeying their conscience, the nuns stated in a legal brief, adding that this choice is what the government is demanding of them through the federal contraception mandate.
The issue revolves around a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services requiring employers to offer health plans covering free contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
The case will be heard this Supreme Court term, likely in March, as part of a bundle of cases against the contraceptive mandate. Representing the Little Sisters and several other plaintiffs in the case is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, whose representatives filed the brief on Monday, reports the Catholic News Agency.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international Roman Catholic Congregation of women founded in 1839 by St. Jeanne Jugan. They operate homes in 31 countries, where they provide loving care for more than 13,000 needy elderly persons.
"We offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they are welcomed as Christ," said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
"We perform this loving ministry because of our faith. We cannot possibly choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn't have to."
In support of the nuns, Bryan Rocker online stated: "We should all make sure we speak loud and clear to our elected officials that this is wrong on so many levels. Mandates like this are one of the many ways the secular society is waging its war on the faithful!"
This is the second time the Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from the government's efforts to make them provide contraceptives to their employees, according to a news release on the Little Sisters' website. The Supreme Court gave the Sisters preliminary protection in January 2014.
The Obama administration established narrow religious exemptions for houses of worship and their affiliated groups, but many religiously-affiliated charities, nonprofits and businesses that morally objected to the mandate were required to abide by it.
In response to protests and lawsuits from hundreds of plaintiffs across the country, the administration later offered an "accommodation" to certain objecting religious nonprofits, under which they could notify their insurer of their conscientious objection, and the insurer would then fund the coverage.
The Little Sisters lost their case at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2015 after the court ruled the "accommodation" offered to the sisters did not substantially burden their sincerely-held religious beliefs. The sisters applied for, and received an injunction from the mandate in August, and in November the Supreme Court agreed to hear their case along with the other plaintiffs.
The brief claims the government is violating federal law by speaking for the sisters in declaring that the accommodation is compatible with their religious beliefs.
The federal law in question, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, provides that when a government action violates a person's sincerely-held religious beliefs, the burden of proof is on the government to establish the action furthers a compelling state interest and is the least-restrictive means of doing so.
"If its interests were truly compelling, the government would not exempt the employers of tens of millions of employees from the mandate for mere administrative convenience," the brief states.
"All we ask is that our rights not be taken away," Sister Maguire said.
"The government exempts large corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us -- we just want to keep serving the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years."