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Posted on May 17, 2016 | 1 comment

Supreme Court Sends Little Listers of the Poor, et al, Back to Appeals Court

Supreme Court Sends Little Listers of the Poor, et al, Back to Appeals Court

The Supreme Court building; image source unknown.

The Supreme Court building; image source unknown.

In a unanimous ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that seven cases filed against the US Department of Health and Human Services by Catholic religious sisters and other religious employers be reheard in appeals courts.


The eight current justices vacated all the lower court rulings and upheld stays of penalties while the cases are reheard.


The cases


The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic women’s religious congregation that takes care of indigent elderly people and who are funded entirely by donations, is the most well-known of the seven plaintiffs.


Their case, and the six similar cases filed by a Catholic pro-life organization and two dioceses (Priests for Life and the Dioceses of Washington and Pittsburgh) and three Protestant colleges or universities (Southern Nazarene University, Geneva College, and East Texas Catholic University) were bundled into one heard by the Supreme Court: Zubik v. Burwell.


Zubik v. Burwell, the lead case, is named for Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. Like the Washington case, Zubik was filed on behalf of all the Catholic institutions in the diocese, as well as the diocese itself.


All seven sued HHS over the so-called mandate requiring most employers to include  sterilizations, birth control, and “plan b” drugs in insurance coverage for female employees, with religious exemptions available only for churches and other “houses of worship.” HHS then offered what it referred to as an “accommodation,” which the plaintiffs rejected.


The “accommodation” and the decision


The plaintiffs argued, in essence, that government requirements that they sign a form notifying insurers they would not cover the contested drugs and procedures amounted to signing a “permission slip” for them to be provided. The result, they said, amounted to nothing more than everyone pretending that they were not the ones providing them.


After hearing oral arguments, the Justices made the unusual move of asking both sides to present additional briefs about “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without… notice from petitioners.”


HHS originally argued that no other way was feasible. However, in the brief responding to the Supreme Court, HHS admitted that other ways were feasible. Because of this admission, the decision says, and because the plaintiffs all said that their insurance companies providing the drugs and services was acceptable to them as long as they were not involved, the justices sent the cases back without making any rulings. The original courts, the justices said, were the proper place to work out how to achieve the government’s goals without violating the plaintiff’s religious freedom.


“The Court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the decision states. “In particular, the Court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the Government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”


By not ruling on the merits, the Justices left room for any or all all seven cases, as well as dozens of other suits over the mandate, to be heard by the Supreme Court in the future.




We are studying the implications of this development, and are encouraged by it,” said Fr. Frank Pavone, President of Priests for Life. “ We have indicated to the Supreme Court, in answer to its recent questions, that there is a way for the government to pursue its objectives without burdening our freedom of religion. We are ready to present these new arguments in the Court of Appeals, and are just as confident as before of the strength of our position.”


Bishop Zubik expressed cautious optimism in a statement, saying, “We are all grateful to God and the Supreme Court Justices that they have left the stay in place, and that they recognize our willingness to reach a resolution that allows us to abide by our faith and the government to achieve its goals. We have already stated our willingness to come to such an agreement and we hope that the government shares that willingness. We look forward to the next steps in this process.”


Attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty also call the decision a win for the Little Sisters. “We are very encouraged by the Court’s decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters,” Mark Rienzi, lead Becket attorney for the Little Sisters, said. “The Court has recognized that the government changed its position,


“It is crucial that the Justices unanimously ordered the government not to impose these fines and indicated that the government doesn’t need any notice to figure out what should now be obvious—the Little Sisters respectfully object. There is still work to be done, but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”   


“All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters. “We look forward to serving the elderly poor for another 175 years to come.”
“This is not over, we ask for your prayers that God will be glorified by our efforts and the efforts of our clients,” Greg Baylor, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel for two of the related cases (Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell and Geneva College v Burwell) said after a press conference.


Click here to read the decision and a concurring decision by Justice Sotomayor.


For more on religious freedom issues:

Click here for our Religious Liberty resources page. Click here to see all our previous stories and guest posts on religious liberty issues.

Click here for the USCCB’s resource page on the Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty.

Click here to see all our current stories.


1 Comment

  1. Reaction from “ETWN”

    “Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling reversing the decisions of four federal appellate courts on the HHS Mandate is a clear victory for EWTN and all of the plaintiffs who have spent the last several years fighting against the government’s attempt to hijack our employer-sponsored health care plans in order to force us to provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures. The Supreme Court has now said what we have been saying throughout our challenge of the Mandate, that the government does indeed have less restrictive means to accomplish its goals without forcing religious organizations like EWTN and the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate our strongly held moral beliefs or face crushing fines. The government itself was forced to admit this as part of its case before the Supreme Court. With regard to EWTN’s own case, today’s ruling by the Supreme Court strikes down several of the key decisions upon which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based its previous ruling against EWTN. While we await further action by the 11th Circuit in the EWTN case, we are even more confident that we will prevail.”