Breakpoint: Sotomayor and the Little Sisters: What we mean by religious freedom

Article Date: Jan 22, 2014

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has protected the Little Sisters of the Poor from the HHS Mandate. What that means for the nuns—and all of us—is next.  

Recently on BreakPoint, I told you that 2014 was “shaping up to be a momentous, perhaps even defining, year when it comes to religious freedom in the United States.” The issue in the legal challenges to the HHS mandate go “far beyond healthcare” all the way to what we mean when we say ‘freedom of religion.’”

I have to tell you that I recorded that broadcast before the holidays. Little did I know that even before 2014 began, a potentially important blow would be struck for the cause of religious freedom.

The blow was struck by Justice Sonia Sotomayor who issued a stay that blocked the HHS contraceptive mandate from going into effect.

The stay was issued at the behest of the Little Sisters of the Poor, specifically their Home for the Aged in Colorado. The attempt to force the Little Sisters of the Poor, of all people, to provide contraception best symbolizes the indifference, if not hostility, to religious freedom embodied in the mandate.

The Little Sisters are nuns whose mission “is to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”

They do the work that must be done but few are willing to actually do in a decent society. Without an injunction staying the mandate, they would have had to choose between “violating [their] religious beliefs” or paying ruinous fines.

Nevertheless, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied their request for an injunction, despite the fact that the same court had ruled in favor of for-profits Hobby Lobby and Mardel Christian Stores, waiving millions of dollars of potential fines for them.

Thus, we were faced with the prospect of charitable nuns being in a worse position vis-a-vis the mandate than for-profit companies.

Thankfully, Sotomayor rectified this absurd situation. On New Year’s Eve, just two hours before she pushed the button to drop the famous ball in her hometown of New York City, she issued an order that “temporarily enjoined [the Federal government] from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

The order gave the Obama administration until Jan. 3 to reply.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty spoke for many of us when, by way of expressing its delight, it said “The government has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people ... It doesn’t need to force nuns to participate.”

The fact that the Obama administration thought otherwise tells you almost everything you need to know about the precarious state of religious freedom in contemporary America. It was not enough that lay people should be forced to choose between violating their beliefs or paying potentially ruinous fines, the Little Sisters of the Poor had to make the same choice.

This isn’t a disagreement about policy. It’s not even a disagreement about the morality of contraception. It’s about Caesar deciding that God only deserves personal platitudes and privatized opinions, even while demanding that he, Caesar, is due our complete allegiance whenever we enter the public square.

So we won a battle, but the struggle clearly goes on. Like I said previously, 2014 is shaping up to be a momentous year. And keep in mind that national issues like the HHS mandate are only part of the struggle. Local threats to religious freedom like badly conceived nondiscrimination statutes are just as dangerous. Just ask that Denver baker who was told he has to bake cakes for same-sex weddings in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex “marriage.”

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