The Poor Little Sisters

by Gerard V. Bradley

The Department of Justice filed a legal memorandum Friday morning with the Supreme Court, affirming its opposition to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s complaint that they should not be forced to facilitate free distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients to any of their employees who might desire them. 

Perhaps just stating the issue makes manifest the proper resolution of the lawsuit. In a morally sane world, it would.

We live however in a different world, one in which the nation’s leading newspaper could — and did, Friday – describe the Sisters’ lawsuit as “audacious” and, even, occupying a “level of absurdity.” The New York Times editorial board saw no burden at all upon the Sisters’ religious liberty in the HHS mandate. The Times’ vision was a bit blurred, though: It mistakenly described the Sisters as “exempt” from the mandate. They surely are not, as the Editors implicitly recognized in the next paragraph, where they accurately described the Sisters as eligible for a limited “accommodation,” one which the vast majority of federal courts hearing lawsuits of this sort have found to be a “substantial burden” indeed upon religious liberty.

The most telling part of the editorial was its concluding paragraph, which reads (in full, with one interpolation by me): “like the cases of the private employers [such as Hobby Lobby], the suit by the nuns’ group boils down to an unjustified attempt by an employer to impose its religious views on workers.”

One could probably develop an entire course on what is wrong with this country’s liberal elite’s understanding, and valuation, of religious liberty out of that one sentence. Among its many, many mistakes are these three: First, even though the folks who run Hobby Lobby and other complaining for-profit companies are admirable people who also deserve relief from the HHS mandate, it is a dull mind indeed which can see no relevant difference between the Little Sisters of the Poor and a huge commercial chain store; two, employees are not made to accept, or to have “imposed” upon them, any religious view by dint of being expected to pay for their own abortifacient or contraceptive drugs; third, there is no basis for the Times’ imposition of “impose” upon the Little Sisters.

The Sisters’ tiny outfit does not belong to them. They do not make others endure or suffer for their — the Sisters, as “employer” — views by keeping alive the mission and purpose of the organization itself, as the Catholic charity that it is. That character (or charism, one might say) is the common property of everyone associated with it, from the Little Sister who is in authority to the Little Sister who scrubs the floors — and to everyone in between.  The identity and meaning of the entire outfit is shared by all who choose to join it; it is wholly a collaboration among all who toil therein for the purpose of serving those most in need.

Leave it to the New York Times to transpose this reality of cooperative and humble service into an exercise of raw power.


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