Ten years after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was made into law, the Supreme Court has weakened its controversial and steadily-contested contraceptive mandate. On July 8th, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had the proper statutory authority to craft exemptions to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate based on religious and/or moral objections.
Nothing about the ACA passed without controversy in 2010, but its contraceptive mandate stoked particularly intense flames. The ACA’s contraceptive mandate forced employers to offer some healthcare plans that offered some coverage of contraceptive costs. In its original form, churches and other non-profit religious organizations were exempted from the mandate, but this exemption did not carry weight onto private companies who had similar religious and moral objections to contraception.
Private companies challenged this; in 2014, the Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. that employers who objected to providing contraceptives could exempt themselves if there was a way to pursue the mandate in a less restrictive application. But the mandate still existed for many companies and organizations. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order that runs twenty-nine homes to assist the impoverished elderly, were not exempt as they were not a church, nor a for-profit business.
After the HHS issued a new statute in 2017 that protected nonprofit religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, the state of Pennsylvania sued the federal government and tried to coerce the organization into providing contraceptives against their will with threats of heavy fines. The recent Court decision rightfully protected organizations like the Little Sisters from being forced to compromise their inherent values and catechetical principles for the law.
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the Court’s opinion, writing, “For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother… but for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision— have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The Little Sisters approximated that if they were to object to the contraceptive mandate, before receiving legal exemptions from the Court, they would face around $70 million in fines from the government. A government who uses these grossly disproportionate fines to punish an organization whose sisters take a vow of poverty as their second evangelical counsel and who dedicate their lives to hospitality in the name of Christ should rightfully be condemned, and the Court rightfully curbed these gross attempts to eliminate their religious liberties. A $70 million hit would inevitably harm the order’s operations to alleviate poverty.
More dangerously, without the Court’s ruling, the government would be coercing the Little Sisters to give up their Catholic faith and accept secular, temporal rule.
The Catholic Church has always opposed contraception and abortion; Pope Paul VI’s encylical Humanae Vitae in 1968 condemned the “direct interruption of the generative process already begun” as running contrary to the natural law governing our creation. This condemnation reaffirmed the Church’s doctrine on contraception and abortion. Orthodox interpretations of Canon 915, from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, prohibits those who are publicly and directly supporting abortion from receiving the Eucharist during Mass.
Any authority forcing the Little Sisters, or any other Catholic ministry, to cover contraception and abortion in healthcare coverage would be prohibiting such a ministry from actually being in communion with the Holy See.
The Court’s ruling is certainly welcome. However, its acclaim among conservatives as a victory for religious liberty hides the ugly truth behind the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. It is good that we are allowed to be exempt from the government’s mandate to sin, but what about every other company and organization under the authority of the law? This decision is another example of the Court’s legal positivism, where the justices separate what is moral and just in nature from what is legal and illegal.
We are exempt from being forced to sin, but the strong arm of the law still applies these disordered mandates to the rest of our culture and society. Parading the ruling around as a victory for religious liberty and a sound defense of the First Amendment is effective at getting the conservative movement to back the Court’s legitimacy, but the guise of ‘religious liberty’ hides the legal positivism and exclusiveness of the Court.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.