Little Sisters Ask Supreme Court for Exemption From HHS Mandate That 'Would Make Them Morally Complicit in Grave Sin'

Little Sisters of the Poor
A nun working for the Little Sisters of the Poor cares for an elderly patient. |

An order of nuns has filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek exemption from having to conform to the rules of the federal government's birth control mandate accommodation for para-church groups.

The Little Sisters of the Poor filed the request for relief from the Health and Human Services mandate Thursday after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against them.

"The Little Sisters of the Poor are Catholic nuns who devote their lives to caring for the elderly poor. The government has put them to the impossible choice of either violating the law or violating the faith upon which their lives and ministry are based," reads the appeal.

"HHS insists that the Little Sisters must comply with a mandate that their employee healthcare plans 'provide coverage' for free contraceptives. Although there is no dispute that the Little Sisters sincerely believe that all the available compliance methods would make them morally complicit in grave sin, HHS refuses to give them the exemption it has given other religious employers, and instead requires them to comply …."

Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court
Interns with media organizations run with the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court in Washington June 25, 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the nationwide availability of tax subsidies that are crucial to the implementation of President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, handing a major victory to the president. |

In September 2013, the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a suit against HHS over its controversial "preventive services" mandate.

Although the mandate exempts houses of worship automatically under the "religious employers" category, the Little Sisters did not receive an automatic exemption, but received what the Obama administration refers to as an "accommodation."

Under the accommodation, the Little Sisters are not required to cover birth control in their health insurance, but they are required to certify that they seek the accommodation, which allows employees to get the coverage indirectly. That certification, the Little Sisters say, makes them complicit in sin. Additionally, the Little Sisters argue that religious freedom is not just for churches, so they should receive the same exemption given to churches.

In January, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted the Little Sisters a temporary injunction protecting them from the demands of the accommodation as their case continued.

The Little Sisters were represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal firm that has overseen dozens of lawsuits against the HHS mandate.

Last December, the Tenth Circuit heard oral arguments in the Little Sisters' lawsuit and in July ruled against the nuns.

Supporters of the mandate, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, celebrated the circuit court's decision.

"Many of the employees who work at the Little Sisters' nursing homes are not nuns. We don't know how many of those employees want or need access to contraceptives, but not a single nun is being forced to pay for those medications under the Affordable Care Act," wrote Simon Brown of Americans United.

"So in reality, the government is not forcing nuns to buy medications to which they object. Whatever health care decisions those employees make has no effect whatsoever on the nuns' ability to practice their religion."

Regarding the appeal to the Supreme Court, Becket Fund Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi expressed optimism in a statement released Thursday.

"The government has lost every single time they have made these arguments before the Supreme Court — including last year's landmark Hobby Lobby case. One would think they would get the message and stop pressuring the Sisters," stated Rienzi.

"The government is willing to exempt big companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Pepsi Bottling, but it won't leave the Little Sisters alone."

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