Jessica Karmasek Jul. 30, 2015, 12:25pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - An order of Catholic nuns is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court for help in fighting the contraception requirement of President Barack Obama’s federal health care law.

The Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor is appealing a July 14 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that states the Sisters must file for an exemption from the contraception coverage mandate.

The mandate, which was imposed under Obama’s health-care law, requires employers to offer insurance -- including contraception coverage -- or they may be fined.

However, the federal government now permits an exemption from religious employers, such as churches, hospitals and universities -- but they must apply for it.

The Tenth Circuit wrote in its decision that filing for the exemption is “as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax for or registering to vote.”

The Sisters, which run about 30 nursing homes nationwide, argued in a brief filed with the appellate court that the mandate “continues to impose a substantial burden” on their religious exercise and the need to file for an exemption makes them complicit in the government’s “scheme.”

A three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit disagreed, saying it believes the scheme “relieves [the Little Sisters] from complicity.”

The Sisters, represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and former Solicitor General Paul Clement, filed their petition for a writ of certiorari, or review, with the nation’s highest court July 23.

“The government has lost every single time they have made these arguments before the Supreme Court -- including last year’s landmark Hobby Lobby case. One would think they would get the message and stop pressuring the Sisters,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of The Becket Fund and lead attorney for the Sisters.

“The government is willing to exempt big companies like Exxon, Chevron and Pepsi Bottling, but it won’t leave the Little Sisters alone.”

The Becket Fund and Clement -- the same legal team that won Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores -- filed the petition on behalf of the Sisters as well as the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Christian Brothers Services, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The Sisters consider it immoral to help the government distribute these drugs. But instead of simply exempting them, the government insists that it can take over their ministry’s employee health care to distribute these drugs to their employees, while dismissing the Sisters’ moral objections as irrelevant,” Rienzi said.

Reaching Souls International is an evangelical Christian ministry dedicated to preaching the gospel and caring for orphans in Africa, Cuba and India. Truett-McConnell College is a Baptist college that trains students to share their faith worldwide. Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, and GuideStone Financial Resources are the ministries that provide health-care coverage for the Sisters, Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell.

All of the ministries are also represented by international law firm Locke Lord LLP. Kevin Walsh, a professor at the University of Richmond Law School, also represents the Sisters.

“As Little Sisters of the Poor we dedicate our lives to serving the neediest in society, with love and dignity. We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn’t have to,” said Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Sisters.

“We hope the Supreme Court will hear our case and ensure that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives.”

Earlier this month, Houston Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University and Westminster Theological Seminary, also represented by The Becket Fund and Clement, filed their own petition with the Supreme Court.

In May, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Diocese of Erie also filed a petition with the court over the mandate.

Twice in recent months, the Supreme Court has thrown out federal appellate court decisions backing the requirement, remanding cases for consideration in light of its Hobby Lobby decision.

The June 2014 ruling allowed closely-held, for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest.

Attorneys for the Sisters said the Supreme Court is likely to consider its petition in late September or early October.

If the petition is granted, the case would be argued and decided before the end of the court’s term in June 2016.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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