In what some are decrying as another blow to religious freedom in America, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the Little Sisters of the Poor must comply with the HHS mandate that requires their health insurance carriers to subsidize contraceptive and some abortion services for employees or face onerous fines from the IRS.
The 2-1 ruling of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is a major setback for the Little Sisters, an international order of Catholic nuns devoted to the care of the elderly poor.
Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, the Provincial of the order, said that the ruling forces the sisters to choose between violating their faith and neglecting their apostolate to the needy. She said:
As Little Sisters of the Poor, we simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith.
And we should not have to make that choice, because it violates our nation’s commitment to ensuring that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives. For over 175 years, we have served the neediest in society with love and dignity. All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion.
The Little Sisters are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. The Becket Fund filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Little Sisters and about 400 other organizations, including several Christian-aligned universities and colleges.
As it stands, if the Little Sisters fail to comply with Tuesday’s decision, the fines could amount to as much as $2.5 million a year, or about 40 percent of the $6 million the Sisters beg for annually to run their ministry.
Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the Little Sisters, called the ruling a “national embarrassment” and accused “the world’s most powerful government” of going after the religious order. Instead of providing contraceptives through its own existing exchanges and programs, Rienzi said, the government has decided to “crush the Little Sisters’ faith and force them to participate.”
The religious order has argued that the HHS Mandate encroaches on its First Amendment rights by obliging it to support practices that violate its core religious beliefs.
Sister Loraine said that the provisions of the mandate violate the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The Little Sisters, she said, “uphold the inviolable dignity of all human life.”
The federal government’s mandate “forces the Little Sisters to provide services that destroy human life, contradicting their very mission to respect it,” she said.
In their ruling, the judges state that the mandate “does not substantially burden their religious exercise” or “infringe upon their First Amendment rights.”
Rienzi disagreed, saying that the federal government already makes contraceptive coverage available through health insurance exchanges and other programs, making it unnecessary to insist that the Little Sisters do as well.
“There is no reason the government cannot run its programs without hijacking the Little Sisters and their health plan,” he said Tuesday.
The Obama administration brought its own weight to bear on the case in 2013, urging the court to reject an exemption for the Little Sisters. The administration filed legal papers appealing a decision by the Supreme Court to protect the nuns from being forced to obey the controversial birth control mandate.
The Little Sisters and their attorneys are closely reviewing the court’s 100-page decision and will decide soon whether to appeal the decision.
Becket Fund Counsel Daniel Blomberg said they would keep on fighting for the Little Sisters, “even if that means having to go all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome