Little Sisters Win: Supreme Court Tells Lower Courts to Protect Them From HHS Mandate

National   Steven Ertelt   May 16, 2016   |   10:46AM    Washington, DC

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion today in the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, which have been fighting to not be forced to pay for abortion-causing drugs for their employees.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are asking the nation’s highest court to ensure they do not have to comply with Obamacare’s abortion mandate. The mandate compels religious groups to pay for birth control and drugs that may cause abortions.

Without relief, the Little Sisters would face millions of dollars in IRS fines because they cannot comply with the government’s mandate that they give their employees free access to contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Today’s decision removes all of those threats of possible fines.

“The Court’s decision is a win for the Little Sisters and other groups who needed relief from draconian government fines,” the Becket Fund, the Little Sisters’ attorneys, told LifeNews.

“We are very encouraged by the Court’s decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters. The Court has recognized that the government changed its position,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead Becket attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “It is crucial that the Justices unanimously ordered the government not to impose these fines and indicated that the government doesn’t need any notice to figure out what should now be obvious—the Little Sisters respectfully object. There is still work to be done, but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”

Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily protected the Little Sisters from the mandate.  The Little Sisters then went before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to extend that protection, but a panel of the appeals court ruled against them. Eventually the full appeals court ruled in its favor but the Obama administration appealed.

In a surprise move Monday, the Supreme Court punted on the case and, in a unanimous ruling, essentially told the lower courts to find a way to accommodate the Little Sisters so their conscience rights would not be violated. The Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts to examine an alternative accommodation to the mandate.

The justices instructed the lower court to find tweaks in the HHS mandate to eliminate any faith-based concerns “while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly.”

“Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage,’” the justices wrote in the decision.

Pro-life advocates have complained that big corporations were protected from the mandate but Catholic nuns were not.

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Leading pro-life observers immediately hailed the decision:

Leading pro-life attorney David French added the following: “Quick Little Sisters take — Court called the administration’s bluff. All that hysterical language about women’s health? Never mind.”

Chief Counsel and Policy Director of the Judicial Crisis Network and former law clerk to Justice Thomas, Carrie Severino, released the following statement today reacting to the Supreme Court decision in Zubik v. Burwell.
“Today’s decision is a slap in the face to the Obama Administration’s efforts to crush religious liberty in pursuit of its liberal agenda.
This is great news for religious organizations who will now have a chance to make their case to the lower courts: there is ample room for compromise if the government will actually do what it claimed it was doing, allowing religious groups to simply raise their hands as objectors so the government can provide their employees contraceptives through other means.  The nuns called their bluff, and the Supreme Court’s remand recognizes that this is a game changer.
Despite the nuns’ victory, however, the decision highlights the stakes for the next Supreme Court justice.  Forcing nuns to provide contraceptives is obviously unconstitutional and at odds with federal law, but the Court couldn’t find a majority to recognize that fact today.”
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman added: “Religious organizations have the freedom to peacefully operate according to their beliefs without fear of severe penalties by the government. The Supreme Court was right to protect the Christian colleges and other groups from having to pay fines or fill out forms authorizing the objectionable coverage. The government has many other ways to ensure women are able to obtain these drugs without forcing people of faith to participate in acts that violate their deepest convictions. We look forward to addressing the remaining details as we advance these cases in the lower courts.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns who care for the elderly poor, urged the Supreme Court to protect them from $70 million dollars in government fines for refusing to violate their Catholic faith. This is the second time the Sisters have been forced to ask the Supreme Court for protection from the government’s efforts to make them to provide contraceptives to their employees. The Supreme Court gave the Sisters preliminary protection in January 2014, and it will hear their case in March of this year.

“The Little Sisters spend their lives taking care of the neediest members of our society —that is work our government should applaud, not punish,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The Little Sisters should not have to fight their own government to get an exemption it has already given to thousands of other employers, including big companies like Exxon and Pepsi Cola Bottling Company.”

Their Supreme Court brief explains why the government does not need the Little Sisters at all: because it already has many other ways to get contraceptive coverage to those who want it. “Indeed, the government has invested billions of dollars in creating exchanges for the express purpose of making it easy to obtain qualifying insurance when it is not available through an employer.  The government cannot explain why those exchanges suffice to advance its goal of getting contraceptive coverage to the tens of millions of [other] people . . .  yet are not good enough” for the employees of the Little Sisters.

“As Little Sisters of the Poor, we offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they are welcomed as Christ.  We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and cannot possibly choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to,” said Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “All we ask is that our rights not be taken away.  The government exempts large corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us – we just want to keep serving the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years. We look forward to the Supreme Court hearing our case, and pray for God’s protection of our ministry.”

“It is ridiculous for the federal government to claim, in this day and age, that it can’t figure out how to distribute contraceptives without involving nuns and their health plans.” said Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi.

Previously, the Supreme Court ruled that the Christian-run Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to obey the HHS mandate that is a part of Obamacare that requires businesses to pay for abortion causing drugs in their employee health care plans.

A December 2013 Rasmussen Reports poll shows Americans disagree with forcing companies like Hobby Lobby to obey the mandate.

“Half of voters now oppose a government requirement that employers provide health insurance with free contraceptives for their female employees,” Rasmussen reports.

The poll found: “The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 38% of Likely U.S. Voters still believe businesses should be required by law to provide health insurance that covers all government-approved contraceptives for women without co-payments or other charges to the patient.

Fifty-one percent (51%) disagree and say employers should not be required to provide health insurance with this type of coverage. Eleven percent (11%) are not sure.”

Another recent poll found 59 percent of Americans disagree with the mandate.

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