Supreme Court hears Little Sisters of the Poor case

For Immediate Release:  March 23, 2016

Media Contact:  Melinda Skea, media@becketfund.org, 202-349-7224

A Little Sister of the Poor tends to a resident in their home. Photo Credit: The Becket Fund

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a 175-year-old religious order of women who have vowed their lives to care for the elderly poor.

At the hearing, the justices pressed the government with hard questions on why it is trying to force the Sisters to violate their religious beliefs when it has chosen to exempt so many other employers from the mandate. Justice Ginsburg noted that “no one doubts for a moment” the sincerity of the Little Sisters’ beliefs. And other justices expressed concern the government was, in fact, “hijacking” the Little Sisters’ health plan and making them “subsidiz[e] conduct which they believe to be immoral.” Yet the government specifically stated that it not only believes it can force its scheme on the Little Sisters, but also on churches and other houses of worship—making them help provide “seamless” coverage for services like the week-after pill. (Transcript can be found here as soon as it is available.)

“The government has many ways to deliver its services without using the Little Sisters of the Poor—alternatives that it says are as easy to use as shopping on Amazon or Kayak, and which it has already extended to millions of Americans” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead Becket attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “Yet the government admitted today that it is forcing the Sisters to violate their sincerely held beliefs. That’s wrong and unnecessary. As Paul Clement said in concluded oral argument today, the Little Sisters are happy to be conscientious objectors, but they can’t agree to be conscientious collaborators.”

The Little Sisters have asked the Supreme Court for protection from a government mandate that already exempts 1 in 3 Americans, large corporations like Chevron, Exxon, and Pepsi, and the U.S. military. The High Court must decide whether the government can force the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with this mandate and provide services that violate their faith, even though these same services could easily be offered through the government exchanges.

“We don’t understand why the government is doing this when there is an easy solution that doesn’t involve us—it can provide these services on the exchanges,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a statement made outside the Court. The full statement is available here, and video can be found here. “It’s also hard to understand why the government is doing this when 1/3 of all Americans aren’t even covered by this mandate, and … yet the government threatens us with fines of 70 million dollars per year if we don’t comply…. All we ask, is that we can continue to do this work.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have received widespread support in their case from a diverse coalition of religious leaders. As one justice noted at oral argument, the coalition included not only Catholics, Baptists, and Evangelicals, but also “Orthodox Jews, Muslim groups, and an Indian tribe,” who expressed concern that the government’s scheme was “an unprecedented threat to religious liberty.” Other supporters included over 200 Democratic and Republican Members of Congress. More than 40 friend-of-the-court briefs were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Little Sisters (view full list).

The Little Sisters of the Poor appealed to the Supreme Court last July, and in November, the Court agreed to take up the appeal. This is the second time the Little Sisters have been forced to ask the Supreme Court for protection from the government’s efforts to make them to provide services against their faith.

The Little Sisters’ case was heard with those of other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties also before the Court today included Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik.

Paul D. Clement of Bancroft, PLLC presented the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Little Sisters. Noel J. Francisco of Jones Day also presented arguments on behalf of several ministries. The Little Sisters of the Poor are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Locke Lord LLP, and Professor Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond Law School. A decision from the Supreme Court can be expected in June.

For more information about the case, visit www.thelittlesistersofthepoor.com.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket Fund attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketfund.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).