From coast to coast, the lawyers of religious groups and charities can almost quote the following legal language by heart. This is, of course, linked to the strange — from a church-state separation perspective — Health and Human Services mandate that attempts to create two different levels of religious liberty in the United States.
Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). …
To cut to the chase, this legal language appears to offer (Justice Anthony Kennedy, please call your answering service) religious liberty for activities inside sanctuary doors, involving believers, and religious liberty lite for forms of religious ministry that impact the public.
As I noted, via direct quotation, in a recent Scripps Howard News Service column:
“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. The faith we profess, including its moral teachings, impels us to reach out — just as Jesus did — to those in need and to help build a more just and peaceful society.”
Now this precise conflict has hit the headlines in an amazing and symbolic case that simply has to end up in a high court, sooner rather than later, unless White House lawyers jump in and make changes.
The problem is that this story is making headlines, at this point, in Catholic and alternative, “conservative” news sources. Once again, we are in that strange era in which the defense of old-fashioned liberal values is suddenly “conservative.”
The Obama administration’s HHS mandate may force the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor to cease their U.S. operations, according to Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, the religious order’s communications director.
The Little Sisters currently provide group homes and daily care for the elderly poor in 30 U.S. cities.
Sister Constance told The Daily Caller that the Little Sisters may not qualify for a religious exemption from ObamaCare’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-causing drugs free of charge to female workers.
“We are not exempt from the [ObamaCare] mandate because we neither serve nor employ a predominantly Catholic population,” Constance said. ”We hire employees and serve/house the elderly regardless of race and religion, so that makes us ineligible for the exemption being granted churches.”
Catholic teaching forbids contraception, sterilization and abortion, but President Obama’s health-care overhaul law requires employers to offer services that cause all three to their employees without a co-pay. Failure to comply will result in fines of $100 a day per employee — even for religious orders like the Little Sisters whose members have taken vows of poverty.
“[I]t could be a serious threat to our mission in the U.S.,” said Sister Constance, “because we would never be able to afford to pay the fines involved. We have difficulty making ends meet just on a regular basis; we have no extra funding that would cover these fines.”
My point, in this post, is not to debate the HHS mandate itself. However, it is clear that, as currently worded, the Little Sisters of the Poor do not qualify for protection — for the same reason that the sisters walking in the footsteps of Mother Teresa do not qualify.
My point here is journalistic: Is this an interesting news story?
I would argue that it would be hard to imagine a more symbolic showdown than, literally, The United States vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor. That, friends and neighbors, is quite a headline. The fines hitting the various branches of this poverty-based religious order would, literally, be millions of dollars a year.
But this would never happen, right?
As it turns out, the Little Sisters of the Poor have previously been forced to leave other countries because of religious-liberty disputes.
“[A]s Little Sisters of the Poor, we are not strangers to religious intolerance,” Sister Constance wrote in a June 2012 essay for The Tablet, a Brooklyn-based Catholic newspaper. “Our foundress was born at the height of the French Revolution and established our congregation in its aftermath.”
“Our sisters have been forced to leave numerous countries, including China, Myanmar and Hungary, because of religious intolerance,” she wrote. “We pray that the United States will not be added to this list.”
Got news? Not yet.
Help your GetReligionistas look for the headlines in the mainstream press. This is a poignant news story, right?