If you’re in court on the opposite side of a case from the Little Sisters of the Poor—a group of Catholic nuns who have given up all worldly possessions to care for the sick and elderly—you should probably rethink your priorities. Yet that is precisely where the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey find themselves, and in the U.S. Supreme Court no less.
For the first time ever, the Court is broadcasting oral arguments live. And on Wednesday at 10 AM Eastern, the Court heard arguments in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, a case that is consolidated with Trump v. Pennsylvania.
Founded in 1839, the Little Sisters of the Poor “are a group of women who make religious vows to God and we dedicate ourselves to serve the elderly poor, caring for them regardless of race or religion,” says one sister.
You may recall that the Sisters’ clash with the government began in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) interpreted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to force many employers to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives in their private health plans.
This interpretation is more commonly known as the “contraceptive mandate.” Churches were exempted. Groups like the Sisters were not.
Why was this an issue? Well, one big reason is because the contraceptive mandate included abortifacients that take human life—and faith-based groups and employers were forced to pay for the abortion-inducing drugs under penalty of massive fines. Another is that the Sisters believe and follow Catholic teachings that condemn artificial contraception in any form.
After years of litigation and fruitless negotiations with the Obama administration, federal agencies under the Trump administration issued rules in 2017 exempting non-profit organizations from paying for contraception and abortions in their health plans if they had a religious or conscientious objection. In 2018, the agencies announced their final rules, stopping the punishment of organizations that could not pay for abortion-pill coverage without violating their beliefs. These new rules were intended to resolve lawsuits and protect religious freedom.
But when HHS, Labor, and Treasury issued the new rules, Pennsylvania and other states filed lawsuits to block them. Shockingly, lower courts ruled in the states’ favor.
Thus, the Little Sisters of the Poor have returned to the Supreme Court to plead their case.
The Sisters—who are represented by Becket—are not the only group interested in the Court’s eventual ruling. Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a petition with the Court on behalf of March for Life for a nearly identical lawsuit. March for Life is one of the oldest and best-known pro-life organizations in the country. Unlike the Sisters, it is nonreligious. Nevertheless, it too protects, defends, and respects human life at every stage and promotes the worth and dignity of all unborn children.
In the brief asking the Court to take up the case, ADF attorneys argue:
Many conflicts are unavoidable after this Court created a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade … The conflict here is wholly avoidable. Moral or religious objections to abortion are millennia old, and our country has always respected them. In fact, the same day this Court decided Roe, it lauded Georgia’s statutory exemption for hospitals and employees with “moral or religious” objections from facilitating or carrying out abortions.
In sum, conscience is worthy of respect and legal protection. Otherwise, there will be endless conflicts between the State and one’s faith or morals.
Indeed, state officials should heed the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “Friends, in America, the tree of liberty has religious roots. Don’t believe you can sever those roots and have the tree of liberty.”
So, if you’re still under quarantine and need something to listen to, check out the oral arguments in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania on YouTube.
It’s a case about life—and the future of freedom in America.
Charles Snow is a contributing writer at ADF Legal