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Latest News and Information

Obamacare release form stokes uproar in nuns’ contraception fight

By Tom Howell Jr.The Washington Times
Posted on: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
Original publication date: January 5, 2014

The fight over a contraception rule tied to Obamacare has religious liberty advocates and women’s health groups at loggerheads over a simple act: What does it mean when a group of Colorado nuns signs a release form?

A Denver chapter of the Little Sisters of the Poor says the document is an unacceptable outcome. It would authorize other people, over the nuns’ moral objections, to provide birth control services to employees of their nursing facility for the aged.

“The sisters simply can’t be part of it,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said on Fox News Sunday.

The Obama administration says the form does just the opposite by allowing religious groups to wash their hands of coverage and assertively proclaim objections to artificial birth control, including the morning-after pills that some people equate to abortion.

Supreme CourtJustice Sonia Sotomayor agreed last week to temporarily block a provision under the Affordable Care Act requiring the nuns to provide insurance that covers birth control procedures.

The case, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius, is just the latest front in the yearslong battle over the contraceptive rule that President Obama issued in the wake of the 2010 law. According to the administration, the law requires large employers, as part of their group health care plans, to insure all contraception drugs, devices and services approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The sisters’ plight is being portrayed as a David-versus-Goliath fight between big government and a group of nuns who aid the sick and dying.

“In a sign that the White House will stop at nothing to save its unpopular and unworkable health care law, now they’re working to silence a group of nuns in Colorado who object to the Obamacare mandate requiring coverage of contraceptive services,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said over the weekend. “It’s an absurd new low for this mandate-happy administration and an unacceptable affront to religious freedoms and fidelity.”

The nation’s highest court is set to hear arguments this term on a pair of challenges to the administrative rule from for-profit businesses that say the rule violates the religious beliefs of the company owners. The case will test the ability of corporate entities to cite religious protections in seeking carve-outs from government mandates.

Houses of worship are exempt from the contraception mandate, while faith-based nonprofits such as hospitals and universities are eligible for an accommodation that lets them cite religious objections to the rule. From there, an insurer or third-party administrator would manage and pay for the coverage.

Many religious groups have said the compromise still would make employers complicit in directing someone else to insure and provide birth control for their employees.

That’s where the nuns come in.

Advocates for the Little Sisters applauded Justice Sotomayor’s eleventh-hour order Tuesday to temporarily block the contraception mandate, granting an injunction that protects the nuns from the rule while the case unfolds in the federal appeals courts.

The Justice Department fought back Friday morning, filing papers that say no employees at the sisters’ nursing home are about to obtain contraceptives without paying for it on their own.

The sisters’ charity gets insurance services from the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, a religiously affiliated administrator that is not required to provide contraceptive coverage, according to papers Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. filed with the high court.

“With the stroke of their own pen, applicants can secure for themselves the relief they seek from this court — an exemption from the requirements of the contraceptive-coverage provision — and the employer-applicants’ employees (and their family members) will not receive contraceptive coverage through the plan’s third-party administrator either,” Mr. Verrilli said. “The application should be denied.”

But the sisters say that even signing a waiver will violate their beliefs.

“The fight right now is over this form,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, which is representing the sisters.

Mr. Rassbach said Express Scripts, a third-party administrator that works with Christian Brothers, does not hold a religious objection to contraceptives and could open the door to contraceptive coverage among the Little Sisters’ organization.

Now Justice. Sotomayor must decide whether to take away the injunction, keep it in place or bring the issue to her fellow justices.

With battle lines drawn, pro-life and women’s health groups are lining up behind their respective parties.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, said the administration “once again makes clear its intention to steamroll religious liberty and freedom of conscience, even for an order of nuns singularly dedicated to providing charitable care for the aged and infirm.”

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Fox on Sunday that the nuns should sign the form and get back to the “great work that they do.”

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About Preserve Religious Freedom

This lawsuit is about religious freedom and our ability to serve the public, not about contraception. The Church maintains that the First Amendment protects the Catholic Church's ability to serve the public in accordance with its faith and to operate its religious institutions without government interference. The argument challenges the way the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines what is, and is not, a religious institution. By including an exemption at all, the government apparently agrees that, in keeping with decades of practice and precedent, religious institutions should not be compelled to purchase drugs or procedures that violate deeply held religious or moral beliefs.

But, the Administration's HHS mandate defines religious ministry so narrowly that religious schools, hospitals, and social services don't qualify as religious, and must therefore provide these drugs and procedures. This violates the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. It forces religious organizations to sacrifice their beliefs in order to be able to continue their mission of serving the public. Read more about the plaintiffs filing this lawsuit here.

Preserve Religious Freedom
c/o Archdiocese of Washington
P.O. Box 29260
Washington, DC 20017-0260

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