Got news? White House vs. Little Sisters of the Poor

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.”

In this case, we are dealing with a news story — period. Here it is at LifeSiteNews.com, with material drawn from, ironically, the rather funky libertarian conservative Daily Caller.

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?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • mollie

    Are these nuns on a bus? If not, then, no, they’re not interesting or newsworthy at all. We settled this in, what, June? Get with the program, tmatt!
    Also, you forgot to scare quote “religious liberty.” You may want to edit that to reflect the current media approach to civil liberties.
    /snark

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If this story ever gets any kind of fair coverage it will be interesting to see if the media gives the truth about how we are going down the same road as French revolutionaries as well as Communist Hungary and Communist China as experienced by this order of Catholic women religious.Making all this doubly sad is the fact that our Founding Fathers were strong defenders of Freedom of the Press because the job of the press, as they saw it, is to keep government power in check and protect our traditional liberties. But with the media so much on the side of the government these days it smacks of “dereliction of duty” on their part.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Investor’s Business Daily(!) covered it: http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/122012-637873-obamacare-threatens-little-sisters-of-the-poor.htm?p=full. Not sure what it has to do with investors or business, but they covered it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Tom—On the whole the IBD story was well done and basically sympathetic to the nuns and the First Amendment. But this publication is not mainstream media the way USA Today is, or NBC, or NY Times, etc. In fact, I venture to say most people have not heard of this publication although it may be well known in investor or financial circles.
    Another point is that this article kept calling it the” contraception mandate.” But it is far more coercive than that. The directive mandates abortion pills, it mandates that Catholic medical institutions get into sterilization operations. And there is far more opposition to the mandate beyond Catholic circles over these other two issues , but they get mentioned far less frequently than simple contraception.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Deacon, I realize that it’s not mainstream, but I found it interesting that a paper concerned with investment and business would take up the issue.

  • Elleblue

    If this religious community did qualify under the stipulations they would be called, racist and discriminating against anyone who wasn’t Catholic???

    There’s no winning this one.

  • Julia

    The United Way would not fund such an operation – UW requires that personnel be hired and all people be served regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Many other grantors, including state funding entities, have the same requirements.

  • MJBubba

    Investors Business Daily has a conservative editorial voice, and runs some editorials on both the right and left side of the culture wars. They are no fans of national deficit spending. I like them for the editorial cartoons by Michael Ramirez.
    http://www.investors.com/editorial-cartoons/michael-ramirez

  • sari

    No mention is made of from where the Little Sisters receive their funding. Is it from private charities or heavily taxpayer-financed as are many other Catholic service institutions?

    • Charles

      That would be interesting to know, but not particularly relevant to the story as the law affects all employers whether they support themselves from private or public sources. Additionally, bureaucrats are generally required to determine grant eligibility on matters relating to the grant (or general legal status of the applicant), not the political priorities of donors to the ruling administration.

      • sari

        Federal funding comes with strings. If the organization is entirely church-financed, it can apply different criteria to hiring employees and designating recipients. The issue of providing birth control, etc. would be moot. This is as true for healthcare as it is for shutting gay couples out of the adoptive parent pool.

  • yan

    “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. ”

    Ever heard of ‘Society of Sisters v Pierce,’ one of the cases that started it all?

    That case was about a Washington law that was to force all children to go to state schools in Washington. Sisters thought that was wrong. They wanted to do some good in a sometimes sad, cruel world, by educating children according to how the conscience of the parents of the children wanted to educate them. Court agreed. Court decided the Constitution prohibits states from interfering with private things like parenting, which involves a choice of education for one’s children. Hooray!

    A few decades later there was this case called Griswold v Connecticut. There the Court said the rationale of not allowing the state to interfere with private things like parenting, extended to, well, whether or not, and by what method, people wanted to BECOME parents. Specifically, they can’t be prevented from purchasing or using contraceptives. That has to do with private parenting! Boo!

    And, you know what, so does abortion, when you think about it. And that’s what the Court did. It thought about that. And we know what it did. Boo to the uttermost.

    And so here we are again. Some more Sisters are trying to do some good in this sometimes sad, cruel world, and the gov’t says they have to do things the government’s way, or the highway.

    People sometimes beg God to do something BIG to change the country. I find that ironic. Tomorrow night we will celebrate the Son of God being born in a cave in a tiny podunk-nothing town. When it happened, no one heard about it except some rag-tag shepherds laying in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. But eventually, Kings and Princes, and Governors, and Emperors, took notice.

    And today, some Sisters, of no earthly account, will speak up in defense of their right to take care of the very old, without being forced to do it in a way that violates their conscience. NEWSFLASH: GOD MAY BE ABOUT TO CHANGE THE COUNTRY IN A BIG WAY….hooray….!


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