A statement from Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, following oral arguments before the Supreme Court on March 23, 2016:
“We Little Sisters of the Poor are a group of women who make religious vows to God. We dedicate ourselves to serving the elderly poor regardless of race or religion, offering them a home where they are welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to Himself. We have done this for more than 175 years.
But now we find ourselves in a situation where the government is requiring us to include services in our religious health care plan that violate some of our deepest held religious beliefs as Little Sisters.
We don’t understand why the government is doing this when there is an easy solution that doesn’t involve us—it can provide these services on the exchanges. It’s also hard to understand why the government is doing this when 1/3 of all Americans aren’t even covered by this mandate, and large corporations like Exxon, Visa, and Pepsi are fully exempt, yet the government threatens us with fines of 70 million dollars per year if we don’t comply.
It is a privilege for us to care for the most vulnerable members of our society; serving them, comforting them, being a loving and healing presence in their lives; just being a ‘Little Sister to them’ is our joy. All we ask, is that we can continue to do this work.”
Depending on your news source, Monday’s unanimous Supreme Court decision to send the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Zubik v. Burwell back to the lower courts for reconsideration was either a solid win for the religious order or at least cause for some cautious hope as the case proceeds. The sisters will likely accept either analysis, as the most immediate benefit of the Court’s opinion is the finding “the government may not impose taxes or penalties on petitioners for failure to provide the relevant notice,” ending the threat of the multi-million dollar penalty for not complying with the provisions of the ACA the sisters held violated their mission and faith-informed convictions. A less immediate benefit, but as consequential, may be the unusual path the Court took to resolve the question before it issued guidance to the parties for resolving future questions in the matter.
As background, the parties presented their case to the Supreme Court on March 23. At issue was whether the ACA could reasonably provide coverage for contraception and abortifacients for employees without engaging their non-profit employer in conforming their private insurance plans to include them. The government held there was no reasonable alternative, while the Little Sisters responded that not only was a reasonable alternative available, the government violated their religious liberty rights by enforcing an unreasonable mandate against them.
In response, the Court took the highly unusual step of sending the parties back to the table to seek a better solution. After weeks of deliberation, the government acknowledged there was a way to accomplish its goal without the requirements of its current mandate, and the Little Sisters agreed to a compromise proposal. In the Monday decision, the Court not only sent the case back to the lower courts for reconsideration, it also vacated, or erased, the previous lower court decisions as they had not considered the now-proposed solution in their previous deliberation. As a result, the Court avoided the need to directly address issues of RFRA while at the same time increasing the probability the government will seek solutions not accomplished at the expense of an individual’s faith-informed convictions.
Advocates for religious liberty consider the ruling a step toward protecting the right of individuals and associations to act on their religious beliefs without threat of government action designed to compel them to act against them.
For Catholics, the case is ultimately about how we can best realize our ministry of serving and protecting the vulnerable and contributing to the common good. Stay tuned.