Must the Little Sisters of the Poor be compelled to pay for health coverage for products and procedures they find “morally unacceptable”?
“The Third Circuit’s decision guts the RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] protections of Religious Liberty and inappropriately restricts agencies from circumscribing regulation to avoid infringing on religious expression. In RFRA, Congress explicitly recognized that the free expression of religion is ‘an unalienable right’ and that ‘governments should not substantially burden religious expression without compelling justification’ and in the least restrictive means. — From a friend of the court (amicus] brief filed by 92 Members of the House and Senate.
They are, of course, different arenas but pro-lifers were particularly interested this session of the Supreme Court in their abortion and freedom of conscience decisions. In June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Russo, five justices (the usual foursome plus Chief Justice Roberts] laid the axe to Louisiana’s 2014 law which simply required abortionists to hold admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where they end the lives of unborn children. Hope springs eternal that, in the next day or three, the High Court does better on the crucial issue of religious freedom for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
We have written about the case on many occasions. It merits all this attention.
When oral arguments were presented May 6th in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court heard a vigorous debate over whether these Catholic nuns, and others with religious and moral objections, are bound by a mandate, issued by HHS under a provision of ObamaCare. The mandate would force them to provide health insurance coverage for products and procedures they find “‘morally unacceptable.”
The Order, which serves the poor and the elderly, has fought the mandate for seven+ years and seemingly had finally prevailed when HHS announced a new rule to protect religious non-profits, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. That proved too much for several states, including Pennsylvania and California and New Jersey, who hustled off to court.
The Justices, who conducted oral arguments by teleconference, will decide whether they agree with the Trump administration that the nationwide injunction issued by the 3rd Circuit blocking the HHS rule should be reversed.
The issues at stake cannot be more fundamental. As the Congressional brief from which we quoted above, argued
The Third Circuit’s decision below is a direct assault on RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] and imposes a drastic and unprecedented restriction on federal agencies’ ability to protect religious liberty. It must be reviewed and reversed.
The one-two punch delivered by the Third Circuit both permits an agency to implement regulations that burden religious exercise, and also restricts the Executive from providing sufficient religious accommodations to temper that burden. That pair of rulings runs roughshod over RFRA’s requirement that all laws—including all regulations promulgated to “implement” statutory law—be interpreted and construed to provide the greatest possible protection to freedom of conscience and religious exercise.
Their conclusion starkly summarizes the issues at stake:
In passing RFRA and acknowledging the weightiness of claims of conscience by parties like the Little Sisters, Congress recognized this type of harm for what it is: an impediment to the free exercise of religion, which can be justified only if it furthers a compelling government interest in the least restrictive means. The nationwide injunction against 20 the religious exemption—upheld by the Third Circuit—inflicts such a harm on the Little Sisters.