A group of Catonsville nuns who claimed that the new federal health care law's contraceptive coverage requirement would violate their religious beliefs are actually exempt from the mandate, a U.S. district judge concluded Friday.
The Little Sisters of the Poor operates St. Martin's Home in Catonsville and about 30 other homes for the poor and elderly across the country, including in Colorado, where the federal lawsuit was filed on their behalf in September by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Little Sisters argued that because they are not a church, they would not fall under the religious employer exemption for contraceptive coverage and that giving free access to birth control would violate their religious vows under the Catholic Church.
But U.S. District Judge William J. Martínez sided with government officials who said that the Little Sisters were exempt from the contraception mandate and that all they needed to do to avoid hefty IRS fines was fill out and submit a form to the group administering their employee health care plan.
The Little Sisters immediately filed an appeal and are seeking an injunction to block any fines while the appeal is litigated.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund and law professor at the Catholic University of America, said even filling out the form is problematic for the nuns.
On the form, the nuns would certify that they object to contraception on religious grounds. The form is sent to the health plan administrator, which is then allowed to provide contraceptives and seek government reimbursement, Rienzi said. That amounts to an indirect endorsement of contraceptives, which violates the Little Sisters' beliefs, Rienzi said.
"The law is clear the government can't force the sisters to chose between following their religion and paying massive fines," said Rienzi. "The government has lots of other ways to get the drugs to people if it thinks it's necessary. The idea that they can't do it without involving the Little Sisters of the Poor makes no sense."
Martínez pointed out, however, that the plan administrator for the Little Sisters, Christian Brothers Services, has no plans to provide contraceptives to Little Sisters employees. Christian Brothers Services is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Therefore, the judge wrote, the Little Sisters' contention that filling out the form infringes on their religious liberties "ignores the factual and legal realities of the case."
Martínez wrote in his ruling that it was "undisputed" that the Little Sisters qualified for the exemption and would not have to start covering birth control, sterilization or abortion for their employees. Lawyers for the nuns had argued in court that the rules surrounding the religious exemption could change in the future, but Martínez said he could only base his ruling on current law.
The issue of how the government would define religious employers has been contentious. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by nonprofit and for-profit groups over the issue, with some arguing the law was written too narrowly. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood characterizes the religious exemption as expansive and says it will include 350,000 churches, religious schools and houses of worship.
Much of the contention has surrounded schools, universities and private businesses like Hobby Lobby, a company whose high-profile case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next year. The Becket Fund also represents Hobby Lobby.
In a separate ruling on Friday, a federal judge in Texas sided with two Baptist universities that claimed providing contraception to employees would violate their religious beliefs. That lawsuit was also filed by the Becket Fund.