Little Sisters of the Poor Return to U.S. Supreme Court to Defend Religious Freedom

Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, (C), of the Little Sisters of the Poor, walks down the steps of the US Supreme Court after aruments, March 23, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Little Sisters of the Poor will return to the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday for historic telephonic oral arguments to ask that Pennsylvania be blocked from removing their religious exemption from Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.

The case of the order of Catholic nuns who care for the elderly sick and poor is among the handful the Supreme Court has decided to hear telephonically during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Little Sisters are hoping the high Court will finally end their seven-year legal battle against the Obama-era mandate that requires them to provide free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees through health insurance plans.

Former Obama-era Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – an abortion activist – and bureaucrats in her department inserted the mandate into Obamacare. Following objections by many religious employers to the requirements of the mandate, the Obama administration devised “accommodations” that only gave the appearance the religious groups would not be footing the bill for the federal government’s mandate of the offensive contraceptive drugs and sterilization procedures. In reality, the faith groups were being asked to passively approve of the contraceptives.

Left-wing groups such as Planned Parenthood claim women should obtain free birth control and that the Trump administration is forcing women to pay for their own birth control when they choose to have sex. The Obama administration itself, however, actually exempted from its own rule at least 25 million Americans – including large corporations such as Chevron, Exxon, Visa, and Pepsi Bottling, as well as the U.S. military and large cities like New York City – through various exemption allowances, with little pushback from the left.

In May 2016, in the wake of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court unanimously decided to send back to the lower courts the case of the Little Sisters, in effect ordering the government not to fine the Sisters for noncompliance with the HHS mandate and for not informing the government that the mandate is in conflict with their beliefs.

One year later, President Donald Trump issued the first executive order ever to defend religious liberty. In the order, Trump directed HHS to develop rules for rights of conscience regarding abortion that would protect faith groups such as the Little Sisters.

The Trump administration announced its new rule the following October that would protect the nuns and other religious non-profits from being coerced by the federal government to provide services in their healthcare plans that violate their faith beliefs.

The rule provided full protection for Americans with religious beliefs and moral convictions and acknowledged that the contraceptive mandate concerns serious issues of moral concern, including those involving human life.

However, the following December, a federal judge in Pennsylvania blocked the Trump administration’s rule that exempted employers with religious or moral objections to the Obamacare mandate.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone, an Obama appointee, said the state was “likely to suffer serious and irreparable harm” if she did not order a preliminary injunction.

Beetlestone’s order followed a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who posted on Twitter the ruling was a “critical victory for millions of women and families and for the rule of law”:

In January 2019, a federal court in California also blocked the Trump administration’s conscience protections with regard to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.

Becket Law, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases, represents the Little Sisters. The firm has announced a virtual rally for the nuns on Wednesday on Facebook:

The Federalist Society will also host a Courthouse Steps Teleforum Wednesday at 3:30 pm ET on the Supreme Court case Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania.

Becket states at issue in the Little Sisters’ case are:

  1. Whether a litigant who is directly protected by an administrative rule and has been allowed to intervene to defend it lacks standing to appeal a decision invalidating the rule if the litigant is also protected by an injunction from a different court; and
  2. Whether the federal government lawfully exempted religious objectors from the regulatory requirement to provide health plans that include contraceptive coverage.

In a statement sent to Breitbart News, Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, noted the Little Sisters are currently fighting two battles:

They not only must fight to keep the elderly poor they care for safe and alive during the coronavirus pandemic, they also have to fight extremist ideologues who think nuns should provide abortion pills in their healthcare plans too. The Supreme Court already told the government to accommodate the nuns’ conscience rights and the president issued an executive order ensuring that employers cannot be forced to violate their religious beliefs.

“Nevertheless, attorneys general like Xavier Becerra and Josh Shapiro just won’t stop harassing these women and keeping them from their life-saving work on behalf our nation’s most vulnerable,” McGuire added.

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