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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Little Sisters in Contraception-Mandate Case

Little Sisters of the Poor at the Supreme Court in 2016. (Image via Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday voted 7–2 to allow employers with sincerely held moral or religious objections an exemption from an Obama-era mandate to provide contraception in their health-care plans.

The decision upholds President Trump’s 2017 executive order exempting the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that runs homes for the elderly poor, and other religious groups, from “undue interference from the federal government.” New Jersey and Pennsylvania state governments had sued President Trump, saying the order was an executive overreach. 

Pennsylvania chief deputy attorney general Michael Fischer argued in May that the Trump administration’s order and a 2018 Department of Health and Human Services exemption were “too broad” — and would result in women losing coverage of services that the 2010 Affordable Care Act and a subsequent rule had deemed essential. 

But Justice Clarence Thomas, in the opinion of the Court, wrote that the Trump administration “had the authority to provide exemptions from the regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections.”

“The only question we face today is what the plain language of the statute authorizes,” Thomas wrote. “And the plain language of the statute clearly allows the Departments to create the preventive care standards as well as the religious and moral exemptions.”

The ruling comes nearly ten years into a legal battle over whether the Little Sisters of the Poor were required to include contraceptives in its health-care plans, though in a concurrence Justice Samuel Alito said that the court’s decision was not likely to be the end of the matter. 

“We now send these cases back to the lower courts, where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey are all but certain to pursue their argument that the current rule is flawed on yet another ground,” he wrote. “This will prolong the legal battle in which the Little Sisters have now been engaged for seven years — even though during all this time no employee of the Little Sisters has come forward with an objection to the Little Sisters’ conduct.”

In May 2016, the Court had unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, ordering the government not to fine the Little Sisters and instructing the lower courts to give the government an opportunity to find a way to offer services to women without involving the Little Sisters. 

Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that the case has been long-running and contentious, saying that with such compelling arguments for women’s health care, as well as for the religious freedom of the order, it seemed that “no one wants this to work.”

During arguments in early May, the Little Sisters’ attorney, former solicitor general Paul Clement, said that even if the case were decided against them, the religious order would not offer contraception in healthcare plans, adding that “there is nothing they can do to allow them to come into compliance with the mandate.”

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