Debate Club

Little Sisters of the Poor Are Letting Conscience Guide Them on Obamacare

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When it comes to public opinion, you can't find a worse group to pick a fight with than the Little Sisters of the Poor. They're an order of nuns who attend to the frail and elderly. With longstanding generosity to those in need, the Little Sisters hold moral sway.

Quality of life stands as their first concern, and so the Little Sisters run low-cost, top-flight nursing homes. People trust grandma and grandpa to their care. Those who pass to their eternal reward in these homes do so in the arms of loving nuns who have become family. People have seen the work of these nuns all across the United States and around the world. There is nothing with which to pick a fight.

Yet that is what the Department of Justice did in January when it opposed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's New Year's Eve decision to grant the nuns a temporary reprieve from having to pay crippling fines for refusing to sign what the Justice Department has described as a meaningless government form.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

But if this self-certification form is so meaningless, why is the government fighting so hard to get the Sisters to sign it? That's because it has plenty of meaning, as Houston-based Judge Lee Rosenthal pointed out in a case to block the mandate brought by East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University.

"The act of self-certification does more than simply state the organization's religious objection," the judge said. The form also tells a third party that "it must provide the organization's employees coverage that gives those employees free access" to the problematic devices and products, and that "it must notify the employees of that benefit." He concluded that "the purpose and effect of the form is to accomplish what the organization finds religiously forbidden and protests."

That's the gist of the nuns' argument, and if they were picketers (which they are not), their mantra would be "Lord Divine, we can't sign." The Little Sisters are letting conscience be their guide.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

The penalties these nuns face can now be enforced by the government against countless Catholic hospitals, schools and social services ministries nationwide except where courts have blocked them. Some of them have gone to court for temporary relief from fines of $100 per day per covered individual. Most who have gone to court have gotten relief.

Do the math. An institution with a mere 100 employees faces an annual fine of some $3,650,000. That's a lot of money from a nursing home's budget for food, clothing, heat, light, bedding, medicine and staff salaries.

What's more, the ever-accommodating Department of Health and Human Services says employers with 50 or more employees who opt not to offer any insurance at all in 2014 get a free pass. If they won't offer insurance in 2015, they're fined $2,000 per employee. On the other hand, the nuns and those operating other Catholic ministries are told that even if they offer a generous health plan, they must pay a fine of $36,500 per year for each person affected if the plan doesn't include what's in the HHS mandate.

How unfair is that? If the nuns lose this battle rooted in fidelity to conscience, so does America.

Mary Ann Walsh

About Mary Ann Walsh Sister of Mercy of the Americas and Director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Catholic Church
Affordable Care Act

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