Members of the United States Congress have voiced their support for the Little Sisters of the Poor before their case is argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“We talk a lot about public service up here. Well, these are the people who live it,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said of the sisters on the House Floor on Tuesday, noting that they serve the poor in 31 countries. “They are the definition of public service.”
On Wednesday, oral arguments for Zubik v. Burwell will take place at the Supreme Court. The case is a bundle of seven cases against the HHS mandate, including as plaintiffs Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, and several Christian colleges.
At issue is the administration’s mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage in employee health plans, and the ensuing “accommodations” they offered religious non-profits to comply with the mandate.
The Affordable Care Act in 2010 required that preventive services be covered in employer health plans. In its guidelines released in 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services stated that these services included sterilizations and contraceptives, including some drugs considered abortifacients.
They crafted narrow religious exemptions for churches and their affiliates (such as parish groups and schools) using tax law. Religious non-profits who objected to having to provide the coverage, however, were not exempt from the mandate.
The administration then offered an “accommodation” for these objecting non-profits. The non-profits would send a form to the government stating their objection, and the government would then notify their insurer, who would provide the coverage at a separate cost.
Plaintiffs such as the Little Sisters, however, argue that they would still be cooperating with actions they believe are seriously immoral by facilitating the contraception coverage. Faced with steep fines for not complying with the mandate, and with no other option than violating their conscience, they took the case to court.
Institutions that are not exempt from the mandate include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dioceses, Catholic universities, adoption agencies, hospitals, and charities such as the Little Sisters. Hundreds of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the federal government over the mandate.
If the mandate goes into effect, the penalty for not providing the contraception and sterilization coverage could be up to $70 million a year for the Little Sisters.
However, health plans of large corporations such as Visa and PepsiCo are exempt from the mandate as they were “grandfathered” into the law’s requirements. An estimated one in three Americans are exempt from the mandate’s requirements.
Members of Congress held a press conference Tuesday afternoon supporting the Little Sisters in the name of religious freedom.
“This is not a partisan issue. This cannot be a partisan issue. It is a fundamental right,” Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) said of the case and of the freedom of Americans to practice their religion in public.
“The Supreme Court has the opportunity to stand up for this fundamental right of all human beings, a right that’s guaranteed to us here in the Constitution,” he added.
“It seems fitting that the case should be heard by our nation’s highest court during Holy Week,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). She added that “neither religious belief nor practice ends at the threshold of a house of worship.”
“For me, it brings to mind Pope Benedict’s words about how ‘Charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is part of the Church’s nature, an indispensable expression of her very being,’” she said, quoting Benedict XVI's 2005 encyclical on Christian love, Deus caritas est.
“The people who serve in these ministries have dedicated their lives to living out their religious convictions, and they, not the government, are the best guide for what violates those principles.”
“I can tell you that there is precious little in this world that is more pure or worthwhile than their ministry,” Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said of the Little Sisters.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) recalled a conversation he shared with Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor:
“She said ‘I can’t sign a piece of paper that makes somebody else do what I cannot do myself. It’s my conscience, you know.’”