Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
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Despite Supreme Court victory and new rule, Little Sisters are still in court
On October 6, 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. That result should mean that the end is near for the Little Sisters’ lawsuit.
However, following the new mandate announcement, the state of Pennsylvania sued the federal government to take away the Little Sisters’ religious exemption. Pennsylvania admits that it already has and already uses many government programs to provide contraceptives to women who need them. Pennsylvania never challenged the Obama Administration for creating much larger exceptions for secular corporations—exceptions that covered tens of millions more people than the religious exemption. Pennsylvania does not even have its own contraceptive mandate at all. And Pennsylvania’s lawsuit does not identify a single real person who previously had contraceptive coverage but will lose it because of the new Rule.
Despite all this, Pennsylvania is asking a judge to order that the Little Sisters must comply with the federal mandate (not a state mandate) or pay tens of millions of dollars in fines.
Becket challenges Pennsylvania’s attempt to take away Little Sisters’ religious rights
In November 2017, Becket intervened on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in California and Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania court refused to let the Little Sisters intervene in the case, or even argue in court. A week later, the Pennsylvania court temporarily blocked the new rule that gave the Little Sisters a religious exemption. Becket immediately appealed both rulings. Oral argument was held on March 23, 2018 to decide whether the Sisters will be allowed to intervene in the case, and on April 24, 2018, the Little Sisters’ motion for intervention was granted. On January 14, 2019, the court ruled against them – a decision which the Little Sisters immediately appealed. The Third Circuit heard oral arguments in May 2019.
On July 12, 2019, the Third Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters. 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 October 1, 2019, the Little Sisters of the Poor asked the Supreme Court to protect them from the HHS contraceptive mandate again and end their legal battle once and for all. On January 17, 2020 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Third Circuit’s decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Oral argument took place on May 6, 2020.
On July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, allowing them to continue serving the elderly poor and dying without threat of millions of dollars in fines. Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas said that “For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. . . . But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision— have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Court held that the federal government was right to protect those beliefs.
Despite losing at the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania continues to ask the federal courts and HHS to change the rules.
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 the government discriminating among sincere religious.
- 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.