Little Sisters and other resisters

Pope Francis visiting Little Sisters of the Poor. Photo from littlesistersofthepoor.org.
Pope Francis visiting Little Sisters of the Poor. Photo from littlesistersofthepoor.org.

My mom, God rest her, once quipped that the three biggest lies in the world are “the check is in the mail,” “of course I’ll love you in the morning,” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” I can add a fourth to the list: “They’re coming for your birth control” – a lie that has gained some currency, as a quick Web search will verify.

Brace yourself for more. A year and a half after the Hobby Lobby cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced it is taking up more challenges to the contraceptive mandate of the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (The ghost of George Orwell groans with every repetition of that title. I’ll use “Obamacare,” hardly a slur if the President takes as much pride in the law as he says he does.) The Little Sisters of the Poor, among others, will argue that they should not have to be involved in employees’ decisions to use contraception. The Administration holds an opposing view.

Inconvenient truths


The they’re-coming nonsense ignores a few facts: people who don’t want to pay for someone else’s contraception or abortion-inducing drugs are not “coming to take” them; access does not mean “free”; religious liberty under the First Amendment includes religious practice, not mere freedom to worship – at least until and unless the Supreme Court chooses to eviscerate the First Amendment; Americans with religious objections to contraception (myself, among others) want not to be forced to subsidize or provide it to others.

Recall that in this context, “religious” isn’t limited to Catholic. The Hobby Lobby case was won by evangelical Protestants, and the companion Conestoga Wood Products case involved Mennonites. Recall as well that those cases were decided on extremely narrow grounds, with the Court majority acknowledging that it was not addressing the First Amendment issues raised by the plaintiffs. Instead, the decision rested on a statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It was left to Justice Ginsburg and the other three Justices in the minority to say that the First Amendment didn’t protect the plaintiffs in their claim at issue. One more Justice being swayed to that view could make the Little Sisters’ case what Hobby Lobby was not: a landmark in constitutional law.

At issue

I am indebted to SCOTUSblog.com and Helen Alvare, Esq. of Women Speak for Themselves for their research and reports on the cases to be heard by the Court. I am mentioning only a few of the issues. Any errors in the following summary are my own.

The Little Sisters are arguing that their sincerely-held religious beliefs, no less than those of the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs, are protected by RFRA. In order for the federal government to prevail, if the Court limits itself to the actual issue in question, it would have to show that the Obamacare contraceptive mandate and the Administration’s efforts to “accommodate” religiously-affiliated employers do not amount to a burden on the Little Sisters’ free exercise of their religious beliefs. Further, the government would have to show that it has a compelling interest in forcing the Little Sisters to violate those beliefs. It would have to show that there is no other way to get “free” contraceptives to the Little Sisters’ employees.

The federal government is quite comfortable making all those arguments. The President and his HHS secretaries – first Kathleen Sebelius, Obamacare’s virtual doula, and now Sylvia Burwell – will litigate challenges to the mandate regardless of time or cost required.

About that “accommodation” for religiously-affiliated employers: employers who provide health care for workers are supposed to advise insurers, or the agencies administering health insurance, to cover contraception as a “preventive” health care item. To accommodate employers like the Little Sisters, the Administration crafted a regulation that allows those employers to advise the government of its objections to the contraceptive mandate, but then requires the employers to provide the government with all the information it needs to provide contraceptive coverage to employees.

The Administration calls this an opt-out for employers. Nope, assert the plaintiffs. Under the accommodation, the government simply turns around and does the paperwork that makes contraceptive coverage part of the health insurance plan provided by the employer. The employer is thus forced to be a party to providing something in violation of the employer’s sincerely-held religious beliefs. To compound the burden on the employer, there are financial penalties for failure to cooperate with the mandate.

We’ve met you halfway, say the feds. You don’t get to tell us what constitutes a violation of our religious beliefs, say the plaintiffs.

Back to “They’re coming for your birth control”

Nowadays, when I hear anything about a threat to women’s basic preventive health care, I immediately go on high alert. The currency of language regarding health care has become so debased that no one can or should take it at face value. “Threat to basic preventive care” has become code for “someone’s trying to get out of paying for your contraception” – a far cry from denying “preventive” care.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are nuns, for God’s sake (literally). They care for the elderly poor. Their vision statement sounds like something that ought to be encouraged: “to contribute to the Culture of Life by nurturing communities where each person is valued, the solidarity of the human family and the wisdom of age are celebrated, and the compassionate love of Christ is shared with all.

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These are the women who are challenging the mandate. Theirs is the ministry that will be crippled if they have to pay fines. These are the people the Administration and other mandate supporters want to force into compliance. The Sisters take a vow of obedience, all right, but in doing so the Sisters in the U.S.A. didn’t surrender their constitutional rights.

Most inconvenient truth of all, in the face of the mandate: women aren’t broken and they don’t need to be fixed. Calling contraception “preventive” health care is the same as saying that women in their childbearing years are defective. Treating contraception as a choice, an option, is far different from treating it as a public health imperative.

It just might take a group of nuns to drive that point home.

 


 

2 Comments

    • Ellen Kolb

      Thanks for reading, Carol! I’ll keep a close eye on these cases. I pray that the coverage of the cases will draw more media attention to the day-to-day work of the Sisters. This may be an important teachable moment.

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