Politics & Policy

Little Sisters Fight for Religious Freedom

It’s not just about contraception; it’s about good stewardship.

Among the many Americans facing the effects of the health-care law are religious sisters who run homes for the elderly. These sisters live lives of service to some of the most vulnerable among us. And they are threatened by Obamacare. On Monday, President Obama claimed that the House had moved against women’s contraception access. Actually, over the weekend, the House sent the Senate a continuing resolution that would delay the coercive effects of the HHS mandate, which requires religious organizations to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and female sterilization to employees against their consciences.

Come January, when health-care coverage starts under the ACA, those cared for by the Little Sisters of the Poor are among the many who will be hurt if religious organizations are not exempted from the mandate. Last week, the Sisters, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed the first class-action court case against the mandate. Sister Constance Veit, L.S.P., communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the lawsuit, the threat, and the lives of the Sisters.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why are you getting involved in political issues?

Sister CONSTANCE VEIT, L.S.P: For us, this has nothing to do with politics. It is a question of respect for every human life created in God’s image, and of fidelity to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and our religious vows.

Our lives are usually quite hidden and we never seek to be in the public eye. In April we filed comments with the government explaining how the HHS mandate would require us to violate our religious beliefs, and we hoped that the issue would be resolved in the final rule that came out in June. Unfortunately, the government would not give us a religious exemption, leaving us with no choice but to ask the courts for help so we can avoid IRS fines. We just want to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates our work.

LOPEZ: Why are you suing the Department of Health and Human Services?

SISTER CONSTANCE: We are filing a lawsuit because the federal government is trying to force us to violate our Catholic beliefs by providing insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and devices, sterilization procedures, and contraceptives. We are simply asking the courts to protect us from the government’s effort to force us to do so.


LOPEZ: How is the HHS mandate going to hurt you?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Non-compliance with the mandate would incur huge fines, constituting a severe financial burden for us and diverting much-needed funds away from the care of the poor. As it stands now, to offer our employees health insurance without free access to abortion-inducing drugs and devices, sterilization procedures, and contraceptives would risk fines of $100 per day per affected individual. For a home with 50 insured employees, this would mean fines of nearly $2 million per year. Similar fines could be imposed on each of our 30 U.S. homes! This is a tremendous price to pay for continuing our mission, since we already rely on donations for about half of our operating expenses in most of our homes.

Several people have asked how we can justify using our limited funds to pursue this lawsuit. I would like to make clear that the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing us pro bono, as they do all their clients, so thankfully we have not been forced to spend money that should be going to the poor on this case.


LOPEZ: Could you actually have to shut down homes?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Even though we would never be able to afford the fines, we have no plans to close any of our homes. The government has already exempted many other employers from the mandate and we expect that the courts will require them to exempt us as well. God has taken care of the Little Sisters of the Poor for nearly 200 years and we are confident in His providence and protection.

LOPEZ: What’s your average day like?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Our days begin and end with prayer, and we participate in Mass with the elderly each day. Each of us is assigned specific duties which contribute to the care of the residents and the running of our home, and which occupy most of our day. Some Little Sisters are directly involved in the hands-on care of the elderly, while others work in administration, food service, or other ancillary services. Two Little Sisters also go out “begging” each day to obtain money and much-needed items for our apostolate. In the midst of our prayer and our work, we pause to take our meals together and to spend some time together in community. Our mission is 24/7 because we live in the same house as the residents, and although we do go to bed at night, we are available to them in case of need 24 hours a day. Specifically, when the elderly are dying, we surround them with care and a prayerful presence both day and night.


LOPEZ: What’s religious liberty to you?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Religious liberty is both the freedom to worship according to one’s faith and the ability to live and contribute to the common good in harmony with one’s religious beliefs. For the Little Sisters, this means being free to lead our religious life and pursue our mission of hospitality to the elderly poor in fidelity to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the ideals of our religious congregation.


LOPEZ: How does your opposition to this mandate square with your support for health care?

SISTER CONSTANCE: We share the Church’s position that access to basic, quality health care is a universal human right, and that any just health-care policy must respect all human life, from conception to natural death. Unfortunately, the HHS contraceptive mandate fails to respect human life at its beginning and that is why we and other religious institutions cannot abide by it. Individuals are free to access these services through other channels; we are merely saying that we cannot in conscience participate in providing them.

The Church also believes that just health-care policies must include special concern for the poor. This is the heart of our mission. Our lives are uniquely devoted to providing quality health care and a dignified life to the neediest elderly among us, no matter how weak or diminished they may be.

We are also committed to offering our lay employees just compensation and the best health-care insurance we can afford. But we must provide these benefits in accord with Catholic teaching.

As daughters of the Church we are bound to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and which explicitly forbid the participation of Catholic institutions in abortion, sterilization, and contraception. These Directives also state that employees of a Catholic institution must respect the religious mission of the institution, and that Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to participate in procedures that are contrary to Church teaching.


LOPEZ: Who are Christian Brothers Trust and Christian Brothers Services and why do they join you in your lawsuit?

SISTER CONSTANCE: They are organizations that help provide health benefits for ministries like the Little Sisters. Most Little Sisters homes obtain their benefits through Christian Brothers, which only works with Catholic ministries.

Christian Brothers has joined in our lawsuit because the so-called accommodation for religious groups still forces us to find a benefits provider who will cover sterilization, contraceptives, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and who will provide related counseling and education to promote these things. As a Catholic organization, Christian Brothers cannot cover these services.

LOPEZ: Does this state of affairs in the U.S. surprise you?

SISTER CONSTANCE: On the one hand, we have seen a gradual secularization of American society and were aware of numerous recent threats to religious liberty (such as the Hosanna-Tabor case) prior to the HHS mandate, so this should not be surprising.

On the other hand, our nation was founded by those who came here seeking religious liberty, and we Little Sisters have pursued our mission in the United States for 145 years without ever facing religious discrimination, so we do find the current situation disconcerting.

When the Little Sisters of the Poor settled in Washington, D.C., in 1871 they received unprecedented attention and support from the federal government. On at least two occasions, Congress passed legislation to provide the Little Sisters with grants to enable them to expand their work on behalf of Washington’s elderly poor, especially recently emancipated slaves. It is sad to think that Washington is now putting up obstacles to our mission and the work of other religious groups on behalf of the poor.


LOPEZ: The pope recently encouraged a “theology of women.” What does that mean to you? And how might it be relevant to some of our debates about these things?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Although he may be expressing it in a new way, I believe that Pope Francis’s “theology of women” builds on what Pope John Paul II called the “feminine genius” and the “theology of the body.” John Paul II believed in the spiritual and moral strength of women and their unique potential to help build the culture of life through their natural gifts of sensitivity and generosity, and their unique capacity to receive and generate new life, both physical and spiritual. I have always found his teaching personally inspiring.

How is this relevant to the current debate? I think that the HHS mandate is just one proof that we live in what Pope Francis calls a “throw-away society.” The focus is on self, not the other. The dominant culture says no to life, or does away with new life, whenever it is deemed inconvenient. There is no longer room for new life that is vulnerable and dependent, just as there is less and less room for life when it is old, frail, and perceived as useless. If there were a greater sense of respect for all human life as created in God’s image, as well as an understanding that woman’s unique ability to receive and bear new life is a gift and not a burden, there would be less demand for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Perhaps this mandate would never have been conceived!


LOPEZ: Who was Jeanne Jugan and why might anyone want to know about her today?

SISTER CONSTANCE: Saint Jeanne Jugan was the foundress of our congregation, the first Little Sister of the Poor. She grew up in the aftermath of the French Revolution, so she was no stranger to religious intolerance. She founded our congregation in 1839, with practically no resources, when she carried a blind, paralyzed old woman home and gave that woman her own bed.

I believe that Saint Jeanne is relevant to people of all faiths today for three reasons:

1. She saw Christ in her neighbor and gave her life to those who were the most marginalized and unwanted in her society. She was a champion of the poor and of respect for life. Today she offers herself as a friend and patron of the elderly, and she teaches us to respect every human life as precious, no matter how weak or diminished.

2. She had a prophetic vision of the solidarity of the human family; she believed that we are all called to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in need, and that doing so is a blessing for the giver. Jeanne teaches us to look beyond ourselves and to share our goods with others.

3. She had absolute confidence in the providence of God. She would often say, “If God is with us, it will be accomplished,” and “Give us the house; if God fills it God will not abandon it.” She thus teaches us to trust in God and the goodness of others rather than relying only on ourselves.

Jeanne Jugan taught the Little Sisters to have this same trust in God’s providential care; it is this confidence in providence that sustains us in the challenges we face today.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online.


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