Hundreds of people — many of them women — joined religious sisters outside of the Supreme Court on Wednesday chanting “Let them Serve! Let them Serve!” 

The protesters came to support the Little Sisters of the Poor and other plaintiffs arguing that they should not be forced to choose between bankruptcy-inducing fines and violating their religious beliefs, through the demands of the federal contraception mandate.  

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, told the crowd that caring for “the most vulnerable members of our society” is a “privilege” and a “joy.” 

“All we ask, is that we can continue to do this work,” she said.

The March 23 rally outside the Supreme Court gathered as the justices inside heard arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, challenging the “accommodation” offered to religious non-profits by the administration regarding its 2012 contraception mandate. The case is a combination of seven cases brought before the court, and plaintiffs include the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, and several Christian colleges.

Under the mandate, employers must offer contraception coverage and related products in their employee health plans. Churches and auxiliaries were given an exemption from the mandate, but religious charities and other non-profit ministries, such as religious universities and orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor, must still provide coverage they believe to be morally unconscionable. 

After a protracted legal battle since the mandate’s 2012 introduction, the Obama administration has offered an “accommodation” to the mandate, in which groups that object to the coverage can send a form to the government notifying them of their objection. This starts a process by which the government then instructs the insurance company to offer the coverage.

The government argues that this separates religious non-profits from the objectionable process of providing contraception coverage. Religious non-profits contend, though, that they are still involved in the process of providing coverage they find morally offensive. 

Sister Maguire told the crowd of protestors that she and her religious sisters “don’t understand why the government is doing this when there is an easy solution that doesn’t involve us — it can provide these services on the exchanges.”

“It’s also hard to understand why the government is doing this when one-third of all Americans aren’t even covered by this mandate, and large corporations like Exxon, Visa, and Pepsi are fully exempt, yet the government threatens us with fines of 70 million dollars per year if we don’t comply.”

Providing the contraceptive services, she said, would “violate some of our deepest held religious beliefs.”

Jeanne F. Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, told the crowd gathered before the Supreme Court that the Little Sisters’ case highlighted an issue “just as egregious as the mandate itself” — the government’s attempts to define what religious groups qualify for a religious exemption. 

“The government does not have the right to declare that serving the elderly poor, or educating students from a religious mission, is supposedly not religious enough to count for exemptions granted to other church groups,” Mancini said. “In the words of one Christian leader, ‘even Jesus himself would not be religious enough to receive this exemption,’” she emphasized.

Meg McDonnell, executive director of Women Speak for Themselves, a diverse coalition of thousands of women from around the country who have challenged the contraceptive mandate, told CNA that the government’s position miscalculates women’s role in religion and the good religious organizations provide their communities. 

“When the government handed down this mandate, they miscalculated how strongly women in particular feel about the right to live according to their beliefs,” she said. “What we saw today were representatives of several different religious institutions talking about how religious organizations provide for communities,” both as providers and as those who have been helped by religious organizations. 

What unifies the speakers and members of Women Speak for Themselves, McDonnell said, is their request that the “government allow organizations to continue to serve the ‘least of these’.”

Celia Harris, a college senior at Geneva College, one of the plaintiff in the case, told CNA that she sees hopes other young people see the mandate as a challenge to their constitutional rights. “This is not about birth control, it’s about our freedoms being threatened.” 

Harris also asserted that her college’s defense of religious convictions is a natural outgrowth of its progressive history. Geneva College was one of the first colleges to advocate the abolition of slavery, supporting the Underground Railroad and was also one of the first colleges to admit women, Harris said.

“We’re very progressive in our time, we don’t see this as a setback, we don’t see this as old-fashioned, we see it as an expression of the rights that the founders built our country on.” 

Gloria Purvis, chairperson of Black Catholics for Life and radio host for the EWTN radio show, Morning Glory, also spoke at the rally. She told CNA that she was “appalled” by the government’s framing of the issue as a health issue when the government has other avenues for reaching its goal of contraceptive access. 

“Really what this is about is forcing those who don’t believe as the government believes to either be bankrupt or to comply — to violate our conscience.” 

In her opinion, Purvis said, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor should not have to choose between their consciences and their ministries.  

“Let them serve, let them follow their faith, and the government has no role in defining faith for its citizens.”