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Current Court:
 U.S. Supreme Court

Status:  Oral Argument (Date TBD)
Becket Role:  Counsel
Related Issues:  HHS Mandate, Religious Communities, Individual Freedom
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Humble Beginnings
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Thousands of elderly poor have a home today because of one remarkable woman.

Saint Jeanne Jugan grew up in a small town in the aftermath of the French revolution. To support her family, young Jeanne worked as a shepherdess, kitchen maid, and tending the sick at a Civil and Naval Hospital. During these years, she discovered her life’s vocation: helping others.

Inspired by her Catholic faith, Jeanne set out to serve those most in need.. She cared for the poor and the elderly as if they were her own family, once even giving up her bed while she slept on the floor in the attic.. Her humility and love of service spread among other young women, and soon the religious community of the Little Sisters of the Poor was born.

A Vocation to Serve the Poor

Today, 175 years later, the Little Sisters of the Poor is an international Roman Catholic Congregation of Religious Sisters that continues Jeanne’s mission to serve others. The Little Sisters serve more than 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries around the world. The first home opened in America in 1868 and now there are 30 homes in the U.S. where the elderly and dying are cared for with love and dignity until God calls them home.

The Little Sisters live by the teachings of the Church and honor the dignity of all human life, especially those deemed weak or “worthless” to some. But the federal government’s HHS mandate, which forces ministries to allow the government to use the ministry’s employee healthcare coverage  to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, coerces the Little Sisters to violate their religious vows or pay crushing fines.

Although the government exempts church and church-run ministries from the HHS Mandate, it argues the Little Sisters aren’t religious enough for the same exemption. Instead, it demands the Little Sisters sign over their healthcare plan or pay IRS fines.

The Becket Fund Defends the Little Sisters

The Becket Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in 2012. This class action lawsuit, led by the Little Sisters Homes in Denver and Baltimore, seeks protection for the Little Sisters and other Catholic ministries that provide health benefits consistent with their faith through the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust and Christian Brothers Services.

After the trial court and the Tenth Circuit denied the Little Sisters relief, Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted temporary protection from the mandate on New Year’s Eve 2013, just hours before the mandate’s fines were scheduled to take effect. On January 24, 2014, the full Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters temporary relief from the mandate, which protected them while their case continued in the lower courts.

Meanwhile, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not force family-owned businesses to provide abortion-inducing drugs and devices through their employee insurance plan if it violated their sincere religious beliefs. A few months later, the Supreme Court relied on its Hobby Lobby ruling to uphold prisoners’ religious rights in Holt v. Hobbs. In recent months, the Court also repeatedly granted temporary protection for ministries that, like the Little Sisters, were facing HHS-mandated fines for following their faith.

Yet despite Supreme Court rulings protecting religious liberty, on July 14, 2015, the Tenth Circuit again ruled against the Little Sisters. The court went so far as to instruct the Little Sisters on tenets of their faith, claiming the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs about complicity were wrong and that the governments’ demand that the Sisters sign over their health plan actually “relieves [the Little Sisters] from complicity.”

On July 23, 2015, the Little Sisters of the Poor appealed to the Supreme Court. And on August 21, 2015, the Tenth Circuit granted a temporary reprieve to the Little Sisters, guarding them from the mandate’s fines until the Supreme Court rules on their case. On August 24, 2015, 20 states and numerous religious groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court supporting the Little Sisters. On September 3, 2015, five federal judges issued an opinion sharply criticizing their court’s refusal to correct its recent decision against the Little Sisters of the Poor.

On November 6, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Becket Fund urged the Supreme Court on January 4, 2016 to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor from the $70 million dollars in government fines for refusing to violate their Catholic faith. This is the second time the Sisters have asked the Supreme Court to protect them.

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