Even Nuns Aren’t Exempt From Obamacare’s Birth-Control Mandate

Posted on November 6, 2015


A federal appeals court rules that the Little Sisters of the Poor received a sufficient religious accommodation.

Emma Green

  • Jul 14, 2015

They’re the perfect plaintiffs: elderly nuns who wear habits and care for the poor and elderly. When the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a complaint against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate in 2013, they joined a host of other religious charities and colleges that claimed the law placed a burden on their free exercise of their religion. But the sisters stood out: If nuns claim a law violates their conscience, who’s to tell them they’re wrong?

On Tuesday, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals did just that. A three-member panel of judges ruled that the Obama administration has come up with a sufficient accommodation for religious organizations like the Little Sisters: If they object to providing insurance coverage to employees who want to buy birth control, organizations can sign a two-page form stating that objection. That’s it—from there, the administration will arrange for a third-party provider to make sure the employee can get coverage. But the Little Sisters, along with schools like Notre Dame and other religious organizations, claimed that signing that piece of paper was the moral equivalent of condoning birth control.

“More than a few people who contacted us about our lawsuit have asked us something like this: ‘You are celibates and you take care of the elderly, so obviously contraception has nothing to do with you; why have you taken on this issue?,’” Sister Constance Carolyn of the Little Sisters wrote in an email in March. “As Little Sisters of the Poor we vow to devote our lives specifically to the service of the elderly poor, but the unborn are no less worthy of reverence and protection than the frail seniors we serve every day.”

The Sisters and other religious non-profit groups have claimed protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which prohibits the federal government from placing a “substantial burden” on a person or group’s exercise of religion. While recognizing the sincerity of the sisters’ claim, the Court ruled that the accommodation “does not substantially burden their religious exercise under RFRA or infringe upon their First Amendment rights.”