California v. Little Sisters of the Poor
Despite a 2016 victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, an Executive Order, and a new rule that protects the Little Sisters of the Poor and other non-profit religious groups from the unconstitutional HHS mandate, the Little Sisters are still in court. In November 2017, after the federal government issued their new rule protecting religious groups from the mandate, the State of California and several other states sued in federal court to take away the nuns’ hard-won religious exemption. Representing the Little Sisters, Becket appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the states have no right to challenge the new rule. In October 2019, the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the Little Sisters, stating it would “welcome guidance from the Supreme Court.” Becket appealed the case to the Supreme Court and on July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters in a related case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and sent California v. Little Sisters of the Poor back down to the Ninth Circuit to be decided in light of the Court’s decision.
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More information on the history of the HHS mandate and HHS cases can be found here.
Despite Supreme Court victory and new rule, the Little Sisters are still in court
In October 2017, Health & Human Services issued a new rule with an updated, broad religious exemption that finally protected religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns who care for the elderly poor. In its new rule, the government admitted that it broke the law by trying to force the Little Sisters and others to provide services like the week-after-pill in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs.
But the Little Sisters are still in court. Following the new mandate announcement, the state of California sued the federal government to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption. California admits that it has many of its own programs to provide contraceptives to women who want them. California never filed suit over the much larger secular exemptions created by the Obama Administration for big corporations—exemptions that applied to tens of millions more people than the religious exemption. California’s own mandate does not even apply to the Little Sisters of the Poor. And California has not identified a single actual person who had contraceptive coverage but will lose it because of this new rule. Despite all this, California asked a judge to find that the Little Sisters should be forced to comply with the federal mandate (not a state mandate) or pay tens of millions of dollars of government fines.
Becket is seeing the Little Sisters through their fight
On November 21, 2017, Becket intervened on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in California and Pennsylvania. Becket has argued all along that the government has many ways to provide services to women who want them as well as protect the Little Sisters. Neither the federal government nor the state governments need nuns to help them give out contraceptives.
On December 12, 2017, the Little Sisters argued in an Oakland, California district court for their right to participate in the case and receive protection from government fines. On December 29, 2017, the court granted their motion to intervene in the case. In January 2018, the Little Sisters appealed to the Ninth Circuit to overturn a federal judge’s decision to invalidate the new HHS rule protecting the Sisters. Becket’s brief, filed in April 2018, explained why the states have no right to challenge this regulation, and why the new regulation is required by law and the 2016 Supreme Court order in Zubik v. Burwell.
Ninth Circuit gives CA the go-ahead to continue its fight against the Little Sisters
Oral argument took place on October 19, 2018. On November 7, 2018 the government issued a new rule finalizing its exemption protecting religious ministries. On December 13, 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled against HHS’s interim exemption and allowed California to continue its fight against the Little Sisters. The Ninth Circuit ruling did not address the final HHS rules.
On January 11, 2019, Becket represented the Little Sisters at oral argument in federal court in Oakland, California to defend their religious exemption from the HHS mandate. On January 14, 2019, the court ruled against them – a decision which the Little Sisters immediately appealed. The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on June 6, 2019. On October 22, the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the Little Sisters, stating it would “welcome guidance from the Supreme Court.”
On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Little Sisters in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania protecting the Little Sisters for the third time, and sent California v. Little Sisters of the Poor back to the Ninth Circuit to be decided in light of the Court’s decision.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that federal agencies cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs in order to further a government goal.
- Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to organize and operate according to their beliefs without fear of government interference.
- Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace and not just in houses of worship.