Win For Women: Court Says Little Sisters Of The Poor Don't Have A ‘Religious Freedom’ Right To Opt Out Of Contraceptive Mandate

Many of the employees who work at the Little Sisters’ nursing homes are not nuns. We don’t know how many of those employees want or need access to contraceptives, but not a single nun is being forced to pay for those medications under the Affordable Care Act.

When it comes to religion-based refusals, much of the focus in recent months has been on issues that stem from the widespread legalization of marriage equality. But there are other significant battles pertaining to “religious freedom,” one of which is the ongoing war some nonprofits are waging against birth control.

This fight came about because of a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which stipulates that religiously affiliated nonprofits that object to offering employee health care plans that include free birth control must simply sign a form stating their objection. Once the form is submitted, the government takes care of the rest in order to make contraceptives available to the nonprofit’s employees. The nonprofit is in no way obligated to endorse birth control, let alone pay for it.

And as government forms go, this one is extremely easy. It’s just two pages. Even renewing a passport takes more effort than is required here.

Yet, multiple nonprofits are bitterly resisting filling out this form. They claim their religious beliefs are being violated by this simple government paperwork and that they have a “religious freedom” right to deny their employees access to birth control.

Americans United has been heavily involved in one of these cases, representing a student at the University of Notre Dame who stands to lose access to vital health coverage. Thus far, Notre Dame has been unsuccessful in its claims.

Then there is the Colorado chapter of a group called the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is also objecting to signing a piece of paper. This week, a federal appeals court rejected their claim that the birth control accommodation infringes upon their religious freedom. That makes nonprofits 0-6 on this issue in federal courts of appeals.  

While the Little Sisters are not faring so well in federal court, they have had a great deal of success in the court of public opinion thanks primarily to misinformation. The Little Sisters are a group of Roman Catholic nuns who run nursing homes for the elderly. Whenever the group talks to the media, it makes sure to put the nuns front and center. It’s a smart strategy because it gives the impression that a bunch of nuns are being forced to buy and hand out birth control, a scenario that sounds totally outrageous. There’s only one problem: it is not true.

Many of the employees who work at the Little Sisters’ nursing homes are not nuns. We don’t know how many of those employees want or need access to contraceptives, but not a single nun is being forced to pay for those medications under the Affordable Care Act. So in reality, the government is not forcing nuns to buy medications to which they object. Whatever health care decisions those employees make has no effect whatsoever on the nuns’ ability to practice their religion.

Of course these facts don’t seem to mean much to the Religious Right and its allies. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite who is now seeking the GOP presidential nomination, made multiple inaccurate claims about the Little Sisters at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in 2014.   

“You know, every American should know about the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said. “You want to talk about values? Right now the federal government is suing the Little Sisters of the Poor to try to force Catholic nuns to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.”

Everything about that statement is false. The nuns filed the lawsuit against the federal government, the nuns do not have to pay for any drugs to which they object and the medications covered by the ACA do not induce abortions.  

As for the Becket Fund, a Religious Right legal group representing the Little Sisters, it is maintaining the completely baseless stance that nuns will somehow be forced to hand out birth control.

“The government keeps digging the hole deeper,” said Adèle Auxier Keim, Becket Fund legal counsel, in a statement. “Just last week the Supreme Court ordered HHS not to enforce the exact rules they finalized today. But the government still won’t give up on its quest to force nuns and other religious employers to distribute contraceptives.”

Americans United previously filed an amicus brief in the Little Sisters case. It argued that absolutely no harm is being done to nonprofits that are required to do nothing beyond state their objection to contraceptives.

“A burden is not substantial under [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] simply because a litigant says so…,” the brief asserted.

While it is unfortunate that the Little Sisters have benefited from the spread of falsehoods by the Religious Right, federal courts are not so easily fooled. We hope judges remain immune to this propaganda because no women should be denied health care simply because their boss is morally opposed to some medications.