One of the most important and convoluted human rights issues has reached the Supreme Court with the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order, and its right to dispense charity according to its own code.
The high court will hear oral arguments for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the consolidated cases of Zubik v. Burwell on March 23rd. In essence, the argument is whether the Little Sisters nuns who have dedicated their lives to caring for the elderly poor and other faith-based ministries may do it on their own terms. The government orders them to offer drugs that violate their religious beliefs, in this instance contraception and abortion of the unborn, even those same drugs and abortion procedures would be made available through other healthcare exchanges.
Originally the Obama Administration promised the Catholic order, and others with the same dilemma, that they would be excused from the legislation. But for whatever reason, the Administration has reversed its ruling and now requires the Little Sisters to change their healthcare to offer services that violate their Catholic teaching. Contradictorily, one third of all American workers who are employed by secular companies have been exempted by the government from having to provide these same drugs in their plans because those employers plans were “grandfathered” in and did not have to change under new Obamacare regulations.
The Little Sisters of the Poor was born out of the personal rural experience of Saint Jeanne Jugan, a young religious French woman who grew up in a small town in the aftermath of the French revolution. Young Jeanne supported her family as a shepherdess and kitchen maid. But she also found time to tend the sick at a government civil and naval hospital. Her humility and love of the poor and ill became legendary among young women, and the religious community of the Little Sisters of the Poor formed in her image.
One hundred and seventy-five years later the society is an international Roman Catholic Congregation of Religious Sisters that serves more than 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries. Its first home opened in America in 1868 and there are now 30 homes in the U.S. where the elderly and dying are given terminal care. For whatever reason, the Obama Administration has insisted that contrary to the government exemptions for church and church-run ministries from government mandates to supply all prescriptive drugs, the Little Sisters are not considered enough of religious institution for the same exemption. Instead, it demands the Little Sisters sign over their healthcare plan or pay $30 million in IRS fines.
The Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruled that the government could not force family-owned businesses to provide abortion-inducing drugs and devices through their employee insurance plan if it violated their religious beliefs. A few months later, the Supreme Court used its Hobby Lobby ruling to uphold prisoners’ religious rights in Holt v. Hobbs. The Court in recent months also repeatedly granted temporary protection for ministries that, like the Little Sisters, were facing fines. But on July 14, 2015 the government instructed the Little Sisters on tenets of their faith, claiming the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs about complicity were wrong and that the government’s demand that the Sisters sign over their health plan actually “relieves [the Little Sisters] from complicity.”
For us, the argument appears to be one of those in which the fine print of a law is hampering justice. We cannot believe the Court will not rule for the Little Sisters.