Should Catholic nuns be forced to include contraceptives in their health insurance plans?

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/08/13/nuns-shouldnt-have-to-choose-between-faith-and-ministry/

Should Catholic nuns be forced to include contraceptives in their health insurance plans?  The government thinks so and has spent the better part of the past two years trying to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to do just that.

For over 175 years, the Little Sisters, an international congregation of Roman Catholic religious women, has served the nation’s elderly poor with love and dignity. The order operates group nursing homes dedicated to the physical, emotional, and spiritual care of the elderly poor in 18 U.S. cities, including Somerville, Massachusetts.

Little Sisters Boston

Littler Sisters of the Poor building in Somerville, Mass.

Although the nuns don’t use birth control and have sincere religious objections to providing birth control for their employees, for the past two years the government has attempted to force the nuns to provide the objectionable contraceptives to their employees or else face millions of dollars in fines. This Hobson’s choice — between providing, and thus endorsing, methods of birth control to which they object to on religious grounds, or paying millions in fines — requires the Little Sisters to choose between their faith and their ministry. That’s why last month, with the help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Little Sisters for the second time asked the United States Supreme Court for protection from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that violate their religious freedom.

The thought that the federal government would even consider forcing an order of Catholic nuns to provide birth control would be comical, if it weren’t so wildly inappropriate. Although the government has granted an exemption from the contraception mandate to the Catholic Bishops, remarkably, Administration officials assert that the Little Sisters are not religious enough to receive the same exemption. And yet, the government has completely exempted thousands of businesses employing millions of Americans, including big businesses like Exxon and Pepsi Bottling.

The government argues that it does not need to treat the nuns the same as the Bishops or big business because it provided them with a sufficient “accommodation.”  Under the proposed accommodation, the Little Sisters would not be required to pay for the objectionable birth control, but would, nevertheless, have to sign a form authorizing the government to use the nuns’ health-care plan to provide abortion-causing drugs and devices that are against Catholic religious beliefs.  But the “accommodation” is no solution at all. It is merely another way of strong-arming the Little Sisters into providing the exact same drugs and devices to which they have sincerely held religious objections.

Little Sisters nuns

Little Sisters of the Poor feeding patients in 1920

The government further argues that the accommodation won’t burden the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs, since providing “authorization” is as easy as registering to vote. But in a free society, the government doesn’t get to tell people what violates their faith. And just because an action is physically easy to perform doesn’t mean it’s religiously easy.

It may be simple to cut hair or shave a beard, but for some Native Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs, those acts are forbidden, despite their simplicity. It is, likewise, easy to sign a death warrant or write a prescription for a lethal injection, but many religious opponents of capital punishment can’t do those things without violating sincerely held beliefs.

At the end of the day, this is not a case about access to contraception.  The government can always distribute contraceptives itself — indeed, our government already spends hundreds of millions of dollars doing just that every year through Title X grants and its own network of healthcare insurance exchanges. So why does the most powerful government in the world need to strong-arm a group of Catholic nuns into helping them achieve their goal?

Stephanie Barclay is Legal Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters of the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @shbarclay

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