Little Sisters get temporary relief while Supreme Court mulls taking case

A resident and a sister arrange flowers at the Little Sisters of the Poors Mullen Home in Denver in this undated file photo. (James Baca/CNA via El Pueblo Catolico)
A resident and a sister arrange flowers at the Little Sisters of the Poors Mullen Home in Denver in this undated file photo. (James Baca/CNA via El Pueblo Catolico)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNA/EWTN News) — The Little Sisters of the Poor have received temporary protection from the federal contraception mandate until the Supreme Court decides whether or not it will hear their case.

On Aug. 21, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Little Sisters will not be subject the to mandate’s requirements or the fines associated with resisting it. The court order lasts until the Supreme Court announces whether it will take up the sisters’ appeal. If the Court agrees to hear the case, the protection from the mandate will last until it issues a final ruling.

For 175 years, the Little Sisters have cared for the elderly poor and dying throughout the world.

However, they say that their service is now threatened by the federal contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.

The sisters are among several hundred plaintiffs who have challenged the mandate, saying that it forces them to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Employers who fail to comply with the mandate face crippling penalties. In the case of the Little Sisters, the fines could amount to around $2.5 million a year, or about 40 percent of the $6 million the Sisters beg for annually to run their ministry.

Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor, emphasized that the religious women “dedicate our lives to serving the neediest in society, with love and dignity.”

“We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to,” she said in a statement after a ruling last month. “We hope the Supreme Court will hear our case and ensure that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives.”

Met with a wave of protest, the contraception mandate has undergone a number of revisions. However, the sisters say that it still requires them to violate their beliefs.

Because the Little Sisters of the Poor are not affiliated with a particular house of worship, they do not qualify for the religious exemption to the mandate. The federal government has argued that it has sufficiently provided for the religious freedom of the Little Sisters and other religious organizations through an “accommodation” under which the faith-based employers can pass the burden of providing the objectionable coverage to insurers, who must then offer it directly to employees without cost.

The government says that providing contraception coverage is ultimately free for insurance companies, because birth control results in better health for women and lower pregnancy rates, resulting in lower overall costs for insurers.

Critics, however, reject this claim, arguing that the costs of the coverage will ultimately be handed on to the employer in some way. Several religious organizations have also said that they still object to signing a form that passes the burden of providing the objectionable content to another party.

“The federal government doesn’t need the Little Sisters or any other ministry to help it distribute abortion-inducing drugs and other contraceptives,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead attorney for the Little Sisters.

“Yet it not only insists on forcing them to participate in the delivery, it argues that their beliefs against participating are wrong and that government officials and judges can tell the Little Sisters what Catholic theology really requires,” he continued. “That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous.”

On July 14, the Tenth Circuit Court ruled that because the Little Sisters had the option of signing the form, they failed to show that the mandate required a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion. The sisters responded by appealing to the Supreme Court.

Last year, the Little Sisters had received temporary protection from the mandate under two orders from the U.S. Supreme Court — one order from the full court and the other from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who oversees the section of the country where the sisters’ case originated. The orders had protected the Little Sisters from mandate penalties while their case was working its way through the court system.

The new court order will continue that temporary protection while the Supreme Court decides whether or not to take the Little Sisters’ case.

The Supreme Court has also ruled directly on the mandate. In June 2014, it struck down the mandate as it applied to Hobby Lobby and other closely-held for-profit companies.

In its July 14 decision, the Tenth Circuit said that the Hobby Lobby reasoning did not apply in the Little Sisters’ case because they were a non-profit and therefore fell under the terms of the “accommodation,” which were not offered to Hobby Lobby as a for-profit company.

The Tenth Circuit’s order also applies to Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, the Catholic organizations through which the Little Sisters obtain their health coverage.

This is the fifth petition on the contraception mandate that the Supreme Court has received. The court is expected to consider the petitions later this year. If it takes up the case, a final decision would be expected next summer.