The Little Sisters of the Poor have been called the world’s most tenacious nuns for good reason, battling for the past eight years in court to reject government coercion and protect their freedom of conscience.
Wednesday’s victory at the Supreme Court is a major win for people of faith, as a 7-2 decision upheld a 2018 agency regulation allowing the group of nuns and other religious non-profit entities to refuse to provide contraception in their employee health plans.
In a separate ruling, the High Court also held (by the same 7-2 margin) that religious schools can hire and fire employees who teach the faith free from government interference.
In other words, it’s reasonable for religious schools to choose teachers according to religious standards, not the government’s.
That ruling also allows religious schools to fire employees based on behavior or beliefs that are contrary to the institution's moral and spiritual code.
In other words, it’s reasonable for religious schools to expect their teachers to be religious.
What a concept.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of these decisions. Both acknowledge and protect religious rights and conscience – foundational principles dating back to our nation’s founding.
The Little Sisters controversy dates back to the 2010 passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, which delegated to the Department of Health and Human Services the task of designing a list of “preventive care” measures that would be required in many employer-provided health plans.
The rule that emerged from the Obama-era HHS mandated contraceptives as part of the required health insurance package – something that many faith-based employers had never provided before and found utterly objectionable.
The refusal by HHS to address numerous religious objections by sufficiently modifying the mandate prompted dozens of lawsuits involving hundreds of individuals and organizations as plaintiffs, among them Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters.
As many will recall, Hobby Lobby, the nationwide arts and crafts store owned by the Green family, won a Supreme Court victory in 2014 on behalf of for-profit businesses, and the Little Sisters and other non-profit religious organizations ultimately obtained lower court injunctions against the operation of the mandate.
Yet when the Trump Administration promised a revamped and expanded religious exemption and provided one in 2018, several blue states objected and sued to block the new rule, leading the Little Sisters to join the fray once again to protect the hard-fought victory they earned for themselves as well as on behalf of all other religious non-profits.
The majority opinion struck a decided blow in favor of religious freedom. As Justice Clarence Thomas bluntly in the majority opinion, “The plain language of the statute clearly allows the Departments to create the preventive care standards as well as the religious and moral exemptions.”
But the High Court’s rulings are not just an important victory for religious schools and a noble religious order and other faith-based groups being discriminated against. It’s a triumph for one of our nation’s most important founding principles – the unassailable right of religious freedom upon which our republic rests.
Both rulings today are significant victories for all people who understand the unique essence of America's founding and especially for people of faith who also hold in high regard and respect the First Amendment.
We all suffer when the government or activist courts decide that religious freedom should take a back seat to the sexual revolution and a worldview that attempts to force people to abandon deeply held religious beliefs.
The Court’s decisions today restores some of my hopeful optimism that the freedom of religion and rights of conscience still command the respect they deserve in our pluralistic society.