The Little Sisters of the Poor are back in court this week, as two states are challenging their religious exemption from the HHS contraception mandate.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra have each filed lawsuits saying that the sisters should not receive a religious exemption from the mandate. Other states have joined onto these lawsuits as well.
“The Little Sisters are looking forward to a final victory in this case, so they can put this whole lawsuit behind them. It's been a long fight,” Becket Fund for Religious Liberty senior counsel Lori Windham told CNA. The Becket Fund is representing the Little Sisters in these cases.
Oral arguments were heard on Thursday in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The judge said that she would make a decision by Monday.
On Friday, oral arguments will be heard in the case State of California v. HHS, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Windham, who was present for oral arguments, told CNA that while the judge had issued an injunction blocking the Trump Administration’s protections of the Little Sisters of the Poor, she did have tough questions for the state.
“She asked Pennsylvania why it was wrong for the Trump Administration to issue this rule protecting the Little Sisters and others, but wasn't wrong for the Obama Administration to issue a series of rules to create the mandate in the first place,” Windham explained. She said that the state’s lawyers attempted to explain why this was different, and then tried to steer away from that particular topic.
The Little Sisters were one of several hundred plaintiffs to file suit against the Obama-era HHS Contraception Mandate, which would have required them to offer free-of-charge contraceptive coverage to their employees through their insurance plan.
This mandate was issued under the Affordable Care Act by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2011.
In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Little Sisters of the Poor also take a vow of hospitality. The order operates nursing homes to care for the elderly poor, and are present in communities around the world. The Little Sisters were not eligible for the initial religious exemption from the mandate because they serve and employ those of all faiths.
In October 2017, the Trump Administration issued a new rule that would allow the Little Sisters of the Poor to receive a religious exemption and would not force them to distribute contraceptives against their religious beliefs.
After Thursday’s arguments, Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters issued a statement, saying that she hoped the five-plus years of court cases would soon be over.
“We pray that the court will allow us to finally and fully return to our life’s passion of caring for the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said.