In a per curiam (unanimous) decision today in the consolidated case of Zubik v. Burwell, the United States Supreme Court reversed lower court orders finding the Little Sisters of the Poor and other organizations to be in violation of the Contraceptive Mandate, and sent the cases back to the lower courts. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the attorneys for the Little Sisters, explains the ramifications of this decision:
WASHINGTON, D.C. –Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Supreme Court vacated the lower court rulings against the Little Sisters, accepting the government’s admission that it could meet its goals of providing the free services to women without involving the Little Sisters or using their plan. The Court also ordered the lower Courts to help the government choose an alternative method of providing the services that does not require the participation of the Little Sisters. (see Sister Constance’s reaction here)
“All we have ever wanted to do is serve the neediest among us as if they were Christ himself,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We look forward to serving the elderly poor for another 175 years to come.”
“This is a game-changer. This unanimous decision is a huge win for the Little Sisters, religious liberty, and all Americans,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The Court has accepted the government’s concession that it could deliver these services without the Little Sisters. The Court has eliminated all of the wrong decisions from the lower courts and protected the Little Sisters from government fines.”
Less than a week after the Supreme Court heard the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor in March, the Court made an unprecedented move asking both sides to provide additional arguments about whether the government could find ways to distribute contraceptives without the involvement of religious non-profits and their health plans. The religious non-profits responded to the Supreme Court: “Yes.”
The government’s lower court argument was that it would deliver the services without using the Little Sisters’ plan and that there was no way to deliver these services except for the path laid out in the mandate. But before the Supreme Court, the government admitted 1) that its current scheme was impossible without the Little Sisters’ plan and participation, and 2) that the government did have other ways to deliver the services without using the Little Sister’s plan or forcing them to participate. These admissions changed the decision before the Court from deciding whether the Little Sisters’ religious beliefs should trump government interests to simply requiring the government to truly remove the Little Sisters from the process and protect their religious liberty by meeting government goals through one of the many options it now admitted were possible.
The government exempts 1 in 3 Americans from the HHS mandate. It also exempts large corporations such as Exxon, Visa and even the government’s own military family plan. A total of 100 million Americans are exempt from this regulation and could be eligible for coverage under the new solution chosen by the government.
“The Little Sisters won, but what this unanimous ruling shows is that there was never a need for anyone to lose,” said Rienzi. “The government will still be able to meet its goal of providing these free services to women who want them—not just for those with religious plans—but for the tens of millions in exempted corporate and government plans.”
The Little Sisters’ win was also a win for other Becket clients, including Christian Brothers Services, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities, Reaching Souls International, Truett-McConnell College, and GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other parties in this case include Geneva College, Southern Nazarene University, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and the Most Reverend David A. Zubik. All of these clients also had the adverse decisions in their cases vacated and sent back to the lower courts.