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History of a Complex Relationship

This series of events started on March 23, 2010 when President Barack Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The guidelines and regulations of this law were and still are the responsibility of several government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). On August 1, 2011, HHS mandated that all health plans (including those provided by employers) paid for all forms of contraceptives, including those which resulted in micro-abortions. This regulation was known to be contrary to the religious beliefs of many groups, mainly Catholics. For this reason, the regulation excluded many churches and houses of worship, but not schools, colleges, hospitals, and retirement homes directly supported by religious institutions, such as The Little Sisters of the Poor. The application of the law, as it was written, would have forced the sisters to pay for abortions and other contraceptives that are prohibited by the teachings of the Catholic Church. These Sisters and other Catholic institutions, along with other Christian groups and corporations sued different parts of the ACA to prevent the owners and directors of these institutions from paying for medications whose use is contrary to the religious beliefs held in good faith.

The case that reached to the supreme court was initiated by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The effects of this case would be felt by many other groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters, through Hobby Lobby successfully proved that the HHS regulations, if applied as issued, compelled the leaders of the institutions and the institutions themselves to act against their religious beliefs. In a surprising opinion in June 2014, the Supreme Court of the Nation ruled by a 5 to 4 majority that some institutions had religious rights and these were disparaged by the regulations imposed by HHS[1]. This was a significant victory for the Green family, the nuns, and religious freedom in the country.

As part of the response to the Supreme Court ruling, HHS made the institutions which objected paying for contraceptives to fill a form by which the insurance companies would exempt them from those charges. Several institutions, including the Sisters, objected on the basis that filling the form would make them accomplices in the provision of the morally objectionable acts. So, they went to court again.

The nuns’ and similar cases reached the Supreme Court for a second time, and in May, 2016, the court issued a unanimous ruling that required HHS to implement less intrusive ways to solve the matter[2]. The case was sent back to the lower courts that had reviewed the cases before with the mandate to find a way to comply with the law without infringing on the religious rights of the plaintiffs. While this was certainly a victory, it also meant that the final decision would be dealt with at the Appeals Courts level.

In 2017, while the Appeals courts were still finding practical solution to this issue, the Trump administration gave an exemption from this mandate to all employers who objected to the regulation on religious or moral grounds. Again, it appeared to be another victory, this time it did not come from the courts, but from the administration in the White House.

Naturally, the struggle could not end that easily. Provided the fact that the states were now responsible for the funding of the services in question, several states, led by California and Pennsylvania, sued trying to revoke the exemption granted by the federal administration. In the case of Pennsylvania, the lawsuit was directed against the Saints Peter and Paul Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, located in that Commonwealth. The sisters lost the case in the lower courts and sought for the Supreme Court to reverse of the ruling. This time, the stakes were higher, for it was not only the protection of Religious liberty, but also the survival of the sisters in the US. The fines charged by Pennsylvania were such that the convents and the homes for the elderly and others had to be sold, resulting in the disappearance of the order in our country. Again, in June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious liberty with a strong majority of 7-2.[3]

This religious community is an inspiration for their trust in the Lord, while confronting many formidable enemies,

This religious community is an inspiration for their trust in the Lord, while confronting many formidable enemies, including the states of Pennsylvania, California, and several others, the Department of Health and Human Services, and, at one point, the White House. The sisters say in their website that: the government told the nuns they were fighting an “invisible dragon,”[4]. The dragon did not count it was fighting more than the nuns through their Saints Peter and Paul Home.

Is this the end of the struggle for the Little Sisters, or will the dragon find new accomplices? Let’s firmly pray the sister’s legal battle is now over; however, we are sure the dragon will show one of its heads somewhere soon.

[1] Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. 682 (2014)

[2] Zubik v. Burwell, 578 U. S. ___ (2016) (per curiam)

[3] Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, 591 U. S. ___ (2020)

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