Little Sisters, Religious Groups Win Partial Victory at Supreme Court

The Court ordered lower courts to reconsider the case.

By Dustin Siggins Published on May 16, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled lower courts must reconsider the Obama administration’s abortifacient and contraceptive mandate, and that the administration must find a compromise with groups opposed to the mandate.

According to attorneys for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that sued the administration, the Court’s decision is a victory for proponents of religious liberty.

“We are very encouraged by the Court’s decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters,” said Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Senior Counsel Mark Rienzi. “The Court has recognized that the government changed its position.”

“There is still work to be done,” concluded Rienzi, “but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”

The Hill reports that the Court wrote:

Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.’

Priests for Life National Director Father Frank Pavone said that while “the Court has not ruled on the merits of the argument,” his group is “encouraged” by the decision.

“We have indicated to the Supreme Court, in answer to its recent questions, that there is a way for the government to pursue its objectives without burdening our freedom of religion,” said Pavone in a statement. “We are ready to present these new arguments in the Court of Appeals, and are just as confident as before of the strength of our position.”

In a statement, Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, said that “All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself. We look forward to serving the elderly poor for another 175 years to come.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman, whose group represented several of the non-profits opposed to the mandate, praised the Court’s ruling.

“Religious organizations have the freedom to peacefully operate according to their beliefs without fear of severe penalties by the government,” said Cortman, whose clients faced fined fines of $100 employee for each day of noncompliance with the mandate. “The Supreme Court was right to protect the Christian colleges and other groups from having to pay fines or fill out forms authorizing the objectionable coverage. The government has many other ways to ensure women are able to obtain these drugs without forcing people of faith to participate in acts that violate their deepest convictions. We look forward to addressing the remaining details as we advance these cases in the lower courts.”

One group opposed to the Court’s decision is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In a statement, the group’s Deputy Legal Director said that it was “disappointed that the Court chose not to issue an opinion today conclusively resolving this dispute and ensuring that women receive health insurance coverage that includes contraceptive care without further delay.”

“Religious freedom does not include the right to discriminate against women,” continued Louise Melling, who said that the ACLU is “optimistic that the courts below will rule in favor of” the government’s mandate “and that the highest court in the land will resolve this matter once and for all on the right side of the law and history.”

The mandate was implemented in January 2012 and was immediately challenged by non-profit and for-profit groups as a violation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because of moral objections to the required coverage.

The Supreme Court ruled against the administration in its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision affecting for-profit organizations. The current case is examining non-profit groups’ right to object to being forced to participate in coverage for devices and drugs they oppose. Defenders of the mandate say the religious non-profits are not directly involved in the coverage, and thus should not take issue with the mandate as it stands.

Attorneys for the 37 groups that sued to the Supreme Court, however, say the mandate still requires involvement by those opposed to the coverage. They have also noted that about one-third of Americans, including those working for major corporations, are exempt from the mandate.

On a press call shortly after the Court’s decision was issued, Rienzi said he “would not assume” that this would end up back at the Supreme Court, because “the government has now acknowledged that there are other ways to do it, and the Court unanimously found they don’t need a separate form or notice for religious institutions. So maybe some lower courts will still get it wrong …”

When asked by The Stream how lower courts that ruled against his clients might change rulings after the Supreme Court’s guidance, Rienzi said that “the government has now admitted something to the Supreme Court it denied in the Courts of Appeal. It has admitted that it has less restrictive ways to do this.”

“They have issued, I think, nine different versions of the regulations,” Rienzi told reporters, noting that the government has said “over and over and over again” that it can find less restrictive methods of accomplishing its goals of widespread insurance coverage.

Ashley McGuire, a spokesperson for The Catholic Association, described today’s decision as “an interim win for the nuns.”

“Today, the Supreme Court made it clear that the government still has not done enough to accommodate the conscience rights of the Little Sisters, whose plan they have tried to hijack for things like abortion pills,” said McGuire, who also said that the Little Sisters “just want to get back to their work caring for the poor without interference from government bureaucrats.”


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