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Little Sisters vs. Obamacare: High Court Takes Up Pivotal Religious Liberty Case

03-23-2016
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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that pitts nuns from The Little Sisters of the Poor against Obamacare's birth control coverage mandate.

The Catholic charity was founded nearly 180 years ago to "offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ."

In the hearing, the justices appeared to be deeply divided over the Obama administration's plan to exempt The Little Sisters of the Poor and other faith-based groups from being required to pay for birth control for women insured under their health plans.

The conservative justices on the high court sounded in favor of the complaint by the groups that the administration's exemption plan goes against their religious rights.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, spoke with CBN News about why they’re also suing the government for forcing the pro-life organization March for Life to cover contraceptives.

"After hearing the argument today, we are hopeful for a positive outcome," said Sister Loraine Marie Clare, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. "We will continue to trust God because -- as our Mother Foundress St. Jeanne Jugan said: 'God will help us, the work is His.'"

"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," Sister Loraine Marie Clare said. "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 one-third 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 per year if we don't comply," she continued.

Certain types of drugs, like Ella and Plan B, often referred to as "morning after pills," are considered by Catholics and others as synonymous with abortion, which they consider a sin.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees Obamacare, has offered The Little Sisters of the Poor and religious organizations like it, an exemption to the contraceptive mandate. However, the plaintiffs object to that because they feel it still violates their right to freedom of religion.

The exemption states that the employer can opt out of the mandate, but that the burden of providing the services then shifts to the employer's insurer.

According to the plaintiffs, the cost of providing the contraception will be indirectly passed back to the employer in a complicated shuffling of costs for services.

Furthermore, the opt-out provision can require the employer to provide private information about its employees to the insurer, thus making them complicit in what they consider a sinful act.

"The government cannot force believers to choose between following their faith and following the law," said Fr. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest and the national director of the group Priests for Life. The group is also a plaintiff in the case before the Supreme Court.

"This accommodation is not an 'opt-out.' Rather, it is a hijacking of the mechanism of our insurance plans to further the immoral goal of expanding access to abortion-inducing drugs and other objectionable services," Pavone continued.

The four liberal justices appear to be in favor of upholding the accommodation the Obama administration offers to faith-based charities, colleges, and advocacy groups.

"The arguments in this case are arguments we can't abide," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the ACLU, which filed a brief in the case in support of the government. "If the court takes away, if the court says this accomodation is impermissible, the court will in fact have a result that fosters discrimination."

Dr. Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, disagrees.

"If the government had wanted to, they could have set up plans on the state and federal health exchanges that would allow women to access these particular drugs and devices," Piper said. "In fact, there is nothing stopping the government from doing that even now."

"Instead, the Obama administration has exempted billion-dollar corporations for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and is targeting Christian institutions like us, under threat of millions of dollars in crippling fines, to carry life-ending drugs like the week-after pill in our employee health insurance plans -- against the beliefs and mission of our school and against the beliefs of the Oklahoma Wesleyan women who are eligible for these plans," he continued.

Millie Johnson, faculty member at Geneva College, another plaintiff in the case, also spoke out.

"As I give all the glory and honor to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I am most of all blessed and honored to stand before you on today to represent Geneva College in this fight for the sanctity of life," she said.

"Geneva College simply wants to continue to operate according to the faith it was founded on and the faith that still inspires the college to serve the community and the world today," Johnson continued.

"For over a century and a half, Geneva has supported freedom as being a fundamental right to all people who are made in the image of God," she said.

As if the case weren't drawing enough attention on its own merits, the vacancy on the high court left by Justice Antonin Scalia makes it even more intriguing. The justice died suddenly Feb. 13.

Scalia, a staunchly conservative voice, regularly sided with Christian litigators. He was in the majority 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned retailer, asking for an exemption from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraception insurance to its employees. Hobby Lobby considered the mandate contradictory to its Christian beliefs.

If the court's ruling is a 4-4 tie, that would mean four appeals court rulings in favor of the administration would be upheld. However, in parts of the country where another appeals court agreed with the faith-based groups, different rules would apply.

Another outcome of a tie could be shelving the case until after Scalia's replacement is seated on the bench. That scenario emphasizes the importance of the judicial leanings of any nominee to the court, an issue currently hotly contested in Washington.

Although President Barack Obama nominated his pick to replace Scalia, Republican senators are trying to stall the process until a new president is in office. Republicans hope a conservative president will then nominate someone more conservative, with leanings similar to Scalia's.

The court is expected to rule by the end of June.

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