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Let the Little Sisters be Sisters By Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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By Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Since their founding in 1839, the Little Sisters of the Poor have existed for just one reason: treating the poor, elderly outcasts of society as if they were Jesus Christ. The Little Sisters’ foundress gave up her bed to the elderly poor, begged to get food and shelter for the elderly poor, and started a movement that holds the hands of the elderly poor as they leave this life and are welcomed into the arms of God. As the director of nursing at the Little Sisters’ Washington D.C. home explained, no one dies alone at a Little Sisters home. This commitment to caring for those at life’s end is based on the Little Sisters’ fundamental religious commitment to the God-given dignity of every human life, and particularly those human lives that society doesn’t care to protect.

But after almost 175 years of ministry to the elderly, the federal government demanded that the Little Sisters make a choice: either reject the core of their religious identity by providing drugs and devices that can take innocent human lives, or take millions of dollars away from the elderly poor and pay it to the IRS as the cost of staying true to who they are.

The government allows millions of other Americans, including those who serve at houses of worship, to avoid this impossible choice. But because it doesn’t think that the Little Sisters are sufficiently religious to get an exemption, it refuses to allow them to continue their ministry as they’ve always done it—which has been for longer than the federal government has even had national welfare programs.

To be sure, the government has offered a so-called “accommodation” for religious ministries like the Little Sisters. But, as the Little Sisters and many other religious organizations repeatedly explained to the government, this “accommodation” is morally insufficient. Even taking on faith the government’s promise that the Little Sisters won’t have to pay for life-taking drugs and devices, they still have to participate in providing them. Worse, part of that participation is instructing someone else to provide the drugs and devices, and the Little Sisters can’t in good conscience ask someone else to do what they believe is wrong. That’s particularly true here, where the “someone else” is a Catholic ministry that provides the Little Sisters’ health benefits and shares the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs.

So the question is, why can’t the government allow the Little Sisters to serve elderly poor people just like they’ve always done? And why does the government think that an international religious order of nuns that does nothing but minister to the elderly—and in homes that include chapels where religious services are held on a daily basis—isn’t sufficiently “religious” to have their religious beliefs protected?