WASHINGTON – A group of Colorado nuns that serve the elderly poor and infirm has helped stir up a national debate over a new federal requirement that employers must provide free artificial contraception and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court granted temporary relief to the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious organizations that appealed the Obama administration’s mandate on contraception.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius not to enforce the controversial Obamacare provision.
On Friday, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. sent a 37-page legal memo to Sotomayor that said the HHS mandate should be implemented immediately.
Opponents of the mandate responded by taking their case to the public, releasing public statements and in the case of one organization, holding a conference call with reporters.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the lead plaintiff in the case, the Denver-based chapter of the Little Sisters of the Poor, cast the Obama administration as heavy-handed in its insistence that all employers must comply with the contraception rule.
“Unfortunately, the federal government has started the new year the same way that it ended the old one: trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs,” Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel, said in a statement. “The government demands that the Little Sisters of the Poor sign a permission slip for abortion drugs and contraceptives, or pay of millions in fines. The Sisters believe that doing that violates their faith, and that they shouldn’t be forced to divert funds from the elderly poor they serve to the IRS.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs), an outspoken advocate for the rights of traditional religious organizations, hailed Justice Sotomayor’s stay as a victory for religious freedom.
“This was an excellent decision by the Supreme Court and I hope it leads to eventual repeal of this unconstitutional regulation that violates conscience and the First Amendment,” Lamborn said in a written statement.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, which has 29 chapters in the United States, including one in Denver, released a statement that emphasized its commitment to religious liberty.
“We are grateful for the decision of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granting us a temporary injunction protecting us from the HHS contraceptive mandate. We hope and pray that we will receive a favorable outcome in order to continue to serve the elderly of all faiths with the same community support and religious freedom that we have always appreciated,” the organization said.
The Obama administration has said that with the exception of houses of worship, employers must provide free contraceptive coverage to employees in the interest of women’s health and empowerment. “We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette (D-Denver) and Jared Polis (D-Boulder) did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Each has been a backer of abortion and contraception.
At issue in the case is whether a religious non-profit organization is obligated to authorize a third-party to provide contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs that it says violate its religious beliefs. Last year, the Obama administration, seeking to mollify religious groups, said the organizations could fulfill their obligation to the mandate by providing indirect coverage of birth-control pills, intrauterine devices, and sterility-inducing measures.
A lawyer for the Becket Fund said authorizing a third-party to comply with the contraception mandate would amount to a “permission slip” for procedures it considers immoral.
Verrilli, in his memo, said religious organizations did not need to do more than sign its name to a piece of paper.
In addition to taking its case to the public, a spokesperson for the Beckett Fund said the organization would reply to the Department of Justice’s response by Friday evening. The organization said the nuns would need to pay millions of dollars in annual fines if they are forced to adhere to the law.