Court ruling is step in the right direction Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, May. 19, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

In my Editor’s View column in the March 3 issue of the Catholic Herald, I encouraged people to join a prayer campaign to support the Little Sisters of the Poor.

These Sisters — who primarily care for the elderly — were involved in fighting for their religious beliefs. They refused to go along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring them to provide contraceptive services for their employees.

Many people have been praying for the Little Sisters of the Poor and others involved in the Zubik v. Burwell case being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Their prayers seem to have been answered.

Supreme Court ruling

On May 16, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine the Little Sisters of the Poor for not complying with the HHS mandate.

The Supreme Court vacated the lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, accepting the government’s admission that it could meet its goals of providing the free services to women without involving the Little Sisters or using their plan.

The Supreme Court also ordered the lower courts to help the government choose an alternative method of providing the services that does not require the participation of the Little Sisters.

Sisters’ reaction

“All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself,” said Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a press release. “We look forward to serving the elderly poor for another 175 years to come.”

“This is a game-changer. This unanimous decision is a huge win for the Little Sisters, religious liberty, and all Americans,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped the Sisters.

“The court has accepted the government’s concession that it could deliver these services without the Little Sisters. The court has eliminated all of the wrong decisions from the lower courts and protected the Little Sisters from government fines.”

Unprecedented move

Less than a week after the Supreme Court heard the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor in March, the court made an unprecedented move asking both sides to provide additional arguments about whether the government could find ways to distribute contraceptives without the involvement of religious non-profits and their health plans.

The religious non-profits responded to the Supreme Court: “Yes.”

The government’s lower court argument was that it would deliver the services without using the Little Sisters’ plan and that there was no way to deliver these services except for the path laid out in the mandate.

But before the Supreme Court, the government admitted 1) that its current scheme was impossible without the Little Sisters’ plan and participation, and 2) that the government did have other ways to deliver the services without using the Little Sisters’ plan or forcing them to participate.

Other options possible

These admissions changed the decision before the court from deciding whether the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs should trump government interests to simply requiring the government to remove the Little Sisters from the process and protect their religious liberty by meeting government goals through one of the many options it now admitted were possible.

The government already exempts one in three Americans from the HHS mandate. It also exempts large corporations such as Exxon, Visa, and even the government’s own military family plan. A total of 100 million Americans are exempt from this regulation and could be eligible for coverage under the new solution chosen by the government.

“The Little Sisters won, but what this unanimous ruling shows is that there was never a need for anyone to lose,” said Rienzi. “The government will still be able to meet its goal of providing these free services to women who want them — not just for those with religious plans — but for the tens of millions in exempted corporate and government plans.”

This is a step in the right direction and definitely an answer to the Sisters’ prayers.