What the Hobby Lobby Decision Means for the Little Sisters of the Poor

A nun working for the Little Sisters of the Poor cares for an elderly patient.
A nun working for the Little Sisters of the Poor cares for an elderly patient. | (Photo: Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

While the U.S. Supreme Court has provided Hobby Lobby an exemption from parts of the "Obamacare" birth control mandate that violate the owners religious beliefs, other lawsuits over the mandate, such as the one by the Little Sisters of the Poor, involve a slightly different legal question. What does the Court's Hobby Lobby decision say about those cases?

The Hobby Lobby opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito for a five to four majority, provides strong indications that the Little Sisters will prevail in their lawsuit, Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, explained to The Christian Post in a Monday interview.

The case of the Little Sisters, an international organization of Catholic nuns that cares for elderly poor people, is "the future of where these cases are going, that's what these cases are all about," Blomberg said.

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Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius is different from the Hobby Lobby case in that the Obama administration offered the Little Sisters an "accommodation" to the birth control mandate. The Little Sisters is being asked to sign a letter that the organization's employees may use to obtain the birth control coverage.

The Little Sisters argues that signing the letter makes them complicit in something they find morally objectionable. The Department of Health and Human Services counters that signing the letter does not infringe upon the Little Sisters' freedom of conscience because the letter only releases the group from the obligation of providing the birth control coverage.

In other words, HHS believes the Little Sisters misunderstands the letter and should not find it morally objectionable. The Court's Hobby Lobby decision suggests it would find this HHS argument unconvincing.

"The court's language indicates the accommodation's days are numbered," Blomberg said.

Alito addresses the issue of who decides when an action is morally objectionable on pages 36 and 37.

The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, Alito wrote, "believe that providing the coverage demanded by the HHS regulations is connected to the destruction of an embryo in a way that is sufficient to make it immoral for them to provide the coverage. This belief implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step."

The Court only needs to determine that the religious belief in question is an "honest conviction," Alito continued, and "it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial."

In other words, the government cannot decide for an individual what is or is not a violation of their religious beliefs, a majority of the Court agreed. The freedom of conscience, implied in the First Amendment, is the freedom to live according to one's own beliefs, with those beliefs defined by the individual, not the government.

Blomberg put it this way: "When it comes to complicity, the government doesn't get to decide, the religious believer gets to decide."

To remain consistent with the view, the Court would need to reject the HHS argument that the Little Sisters should have no objection to what they find objectionable.

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