By Michael Swan
Catholic News Service
TORONTO (CNS) — The Little Sisters who fought the big system heard the cheers, held back tears and accepted the Gaudium et Spes Award from the Knights of Columbus at the Knights’ annual gala “States Dinner” in Toronto.
Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province, nearly cried as she described how happy she felt walking out of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington after hearing a unanimous May 16 decision in Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court ordered lower courts to find a compromise to exempt the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious employers from having to pay for health insurance that covers the cost of artificial contraception.
“I felt as if I was walking on air,” said Mother Maguire. “It was one of the most hopeful, joy-filled days of my life.”
The Knights of Columbus in the United States provided $1 million to fund the exhaustive legal battle between the Little Sisters and the Health and Human Services mandate contained in rules for the 2011 Affordable Care Act.
“With a kind yet intrepid spirit, (the Little Sisters of the Poor) opposed government regulations that sought to force them to act against their consciences so that they may continue to carry out their longstanding service to the poor,” said the award citation.
The Little Sisters are the first religious order to receive the Gaudium et Spes Award, the highest honor bestowed only occasionally by the Knights. It was first given to Blessed Teresa of Kolkata in 1992. Other honorees include L’Arche founder Jean Vanier in 2005, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz in 2010 and Chicago Cardinal Francis George in 2015.
The award to the sisters fits into a religious freedom theme the Knights of Columbus are promoting at their 134th Supreme Convention in Toronto. The Knights have also brought bishops from Iraq and Syria to participate. The Knights of Columbus played a significant lobbying role in persuading the U.S. Congress to declare massacres of Christians by the Islamic State group “genocide.”
Mother Maguire said the Little Sisters of the Poor did not go looking for a high-profile fight against Washington regulators.
“We would never have chosen to become the public face of resistance to the HHS mandate,” she said.
In 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies providing insurance for prescription drugs to their employees but excluding birth control were violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After the contraceptive mandate was included in the Affordable Care Act, the Little Sisters of the Poor argued in multiple courts that it violated their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion by forcing them to indirectly pay for forms of contraception that violate Catholic teaching. Most courts ruled the burden on the Little Sisters’ religious freedom rights was not substantial.
The Supreme Court found that the lower courts should have sought a compromise which would allow the order of Catholic sisters a way out of paying for contraception.
Sister Maguire told about 2,000 Knights gathered in Toronto’s Allstream Centre that, rather than trying to win legal points, the Little Sisters want to get on with running their 27 homes for vulnerable, elderly Americans.
“In this current cultural context, we wish nothing more than to continue serving the needs of the elderly poor,” she said. She said she also hoped the media spotlight would help her order with new vocations.
This year the Knights are celebrating $175 million raised worldwide for worthwhile causes and more than 73.5 million hours of volunteering. Their 2015 global fundraising was $1.5 million higher than in 2014. Last year was the 17th year in a row that the Knights set records for both hours of service and dollars raised.
In Canada, the Knights of Columbus in 2015 raised CA$22.2 million and gave more nine million hours of volunteer service. Quebec was Canada’s most generous province for the Canadian Knights.
The convention has attracted Knights from the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Poland, Mexico, Mindanao, Guam, the Dominican Republic and all parts of the United States.
— Swan is associate editor of THE CATHOLIC REGISTER, Toronto-based Canadian Catholic weekly.