Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of Roman Catholic nuns that provides homes for the elderly, including one in San Pedro, is at the center of a lawsuit filed Tuesday challenging the Obamacare requirement that they provide cost-free contraceptives to employees as part of their insurance benefits package.
The challenge is the first class-action lawsuit filed in the ongoing religious liberties battle waged against the HHS Mandate — a Health and Human Services Department provision included in the administration’s Affordable Care Act.
“The Little Sisters are driven by their religious faith to do what they do in terms of taking care of the elderly poor,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The government should not be telling them they have to violate that faith to keep serving the poor.
“We’re asking for relief not only for the Little Sisters but also for other Catholic organizations that get their health benefits through the Christian Brothers Trust.”
Houses of worship are exempt from the rule requiring employers to provide contraceptives, including an abortifacient known as the “morning-after” pill, for employees, and the administration says it has been trying to balance the objections of religious employers while making sure women can get no-cost contraception.
The Little Sisters could face steep fines if they are not in compliance with the law by January 2014, Rienzi said.
“By God’s grace, we’re hoping for a successful conclusion,” said Victor Salsido, director of human resources at the Little Sisters of the Poor home in San Pedro.
The Little Sisters case is one of 72 now pending under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law designed to protect those bound by religious conscience against burdensome laws deemed to violate the free exercise of religion. Included in the Little Sisters lawsuit are the Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefits representing hundreds of similar nonprofit Catholic ministries.
The Roman Catholic Church has always condemned abortion as the taking of human life and also is opposed to the use of artificial contraception. Protestant Christians vary in their views, but conservatives and evangelicals also tend to hold strong anti-abortion stands that would include objections to the “morning-after” pill and contraceptives such as the intrauterine device thought by some to cause early abortions.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Denver on behalf of Little Sisters of Denver and Baltimore and Christian Brothers of New Mexico names Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; Thomas E. Perez, secretary of the Department of Labor; Jacob J. Lew, secretary of the Department of the Treasury; and their respective departments as defendants.
The employers, the complaint states, “are forbidden by their religion from participating in the federal government’s regulatory scheme to promote, encourage, and subsidize the use of sterilization, contraceptives, and drugs that cause abortions. The government defendants, however, have imposed regulatory requirements that require the class plaintiffs to provide health benefits for their employees that include coverage for, or access to, contraception, sterilization, abortifacients and related education and counseling ...
“The result is that the class members have been offered a stark choice: They must either abandon their Catholic beliefs and participate in the ... mandate or they will be punished by the government with an array of fines and penalties unless and until they comply.”
The most prominent lawsuit filed against the HHS Mandate is the one brought by the craft store chain Hobby Lobby Inc. that recently won a preliminary challenge in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The chain is owned by a Christian family that argued its religious liberty was violated in requiring it to provide full health care, including free contraception, to employees.
The Little Sisters case involves a nonprofit religious organization, but the organization — which employs non-Catholics — also was considered not to be exempt even under accommodations made in the provision as it was finalized last summer, Rienzi said.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., is handling about 10 of the 72 pending lawsuits challenging the mandate in its final form, including the Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters cases.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized the final mandate rule for including a definition of exempt religious employers that was too narrow and excluding religious ministries from the government’s “accommodation” definition.
The San Pedro home provides three levels of care for about 90 residents at 2100 S. Western Ave. Housed since 1979 where the former Fermin Lasuen Catholic High School once stood, the facility was founded in 1901 and operated in its first decades in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles.
Sister Loraine Marie, superior for one of the three U.S. provinces where Little Sisters homes operate, said in a news release that the requirement to provide drugs that could cause early abortions violated the ministry’s religious freedom.
“Like all of the Little Sisters, I have vowed to God and the Roman Catholic Church that I will treat all life as valuable, and I have dedicated my life to that work,” she said. “We cannot violate our vows by participating in the government’s program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs.”
P.S. From a concerned Oregonian.
Folks - time and opportunity are running out to get rid of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stood on the Senate floor for over 21 hours talking about all the problems with this act and the loss of freedom we all face. We must rise up and make our voices heard. I called both of my senator's offices this morning and I would ask you to do so as well. It is getting late for today but first thing in the morning would be great.
Merkely's # is 202-224-3753
Wyden's # is 202-224-5244
Message is: Defund Obamacare (and get rid of it), Vote NO on cloture (vote should happen Fri./Sat.) All you need is a sentence or two - keep it short!
Also go to www.dontfundobamacare.com and sign the petition - over 1.7 million of us have done so.
PLEASE do this, time is short our freedom diminished.