Baltimore-area nuns fighting Obamacare rule

It's a war that seemingly ended a long time ago, being fought in the most unlikely of places: contraception, at homes for the elderly run by an order of Roman Catholic nuns.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, with a house in Catonsvlle, are fighting the provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employee health insurance plans to provide birth control coverage. The sisters won a last-minute injunction to keep from getting fined for refusing to comply with the law when it took effect on New Year's Day.


Never mind that the sisters can easily exempt themselves from paying a single penny for anyone's birth control, which they say violates their church's teachings. And never mind that their insurance plan can just as easily not offer the coverage because it too has an out as a religious group. The sisters want their day in the Supreme Court nonetheless.

Lord knows (ha!) where this fight will end, but it sure seems like a waste of time and effort to me.

I don't know of many other cases where there is such a disconnect between church directive and reality. Polls have long found that close to 100 percent of sexually active women, both Catholic and not, have used birth control — to prevent pregnancy, of course, but also to plan or space out the pregnancies that they do want, or to treat medical conditions such as endometriosis.

That so many women have used birth control at some point in their lives says a lot: That it is no longer — if it ever was — a big moral or religious quandary. That pregnancy is a choice, and one made personally rather than globally.

It's one of those odd confluences of events that this fight against the contraceptive provision comes at a time when it seemed that the church might shift away from the culture wars — or at least, its pope was going to.

Like many, I've been cheered by the emergence of Pope Francis, and the way he's signaled what his papacy was going to be about. More spreading of the good word and deeds, less scolding about the alleged bad ones.

As he famously told reporters in July when asked about gays: "Who am I to judge them?"

Not that he's changed any long-standing policies of the Vatican, but there's value in even a change in tone. For too long, the role of the pope has been as chief rapper of knuckles, particularly over matters of sexuality. But given the church's shameful history of handling its own sex abuse scandal, this pretty much left the Vatican open to a version of the pope's own question: Who is the church to judge?


So it was particularly gratifying when Pope Francis went even further in September, expressing a need for the church to move away from its obsession with certain hot-button issues.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … [W]hen we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context," he said in an interview published in America magazine, a Jesuit publication.

"The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he continued. "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

Such sentiments, coupled with the pope's history of ministering to the poor and powerless, seemed to signal a change, or at least a shift in the conversation.

Which makes it a shame, I think, that for whatever reason the Little Sisters of the Poor are a part of the legal fight against Obamacare. As a group, they are proud to be known as beggars, willing to go hat in hand to raise funds — and, it should be noted, accept government assistance such as Medicaid and Medicare — to provide for the poor and elderly.

What their employees do about their reproductive health seems hardly worth their worry in the face of this larger mission. And yet the sisters have joined other Christian groups and the private company Hobby Lobby, all represented by a law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in suing the federal government over the ACA's contraceptive provision.


There's something so intrusive about all this — especially the singling out of contraceptives over any other medication that an employee might attain through insurance. This is an employer-employee relationship, not a pastor-disciple one. And I'm guessing that even if employees happens to share their boss' faith, they're working for the paychecks, not the preaching.

With the Little Sisters, the case seems just baffling in that their employees, who work at 30 homes for the elderly across the country, likely will have to go elsewhere for contraception anyway. The Little Sisters can file a form registering their objection to birth control and they wouldn't have to pay for it — and their insurance provider would then have to seek reimbursement for it from the government. But given that their insurance provider is another Catholic group, Christian Brothers Services, and it has no plans to provide contraceptive coverage and can't be compelled to offer it, the employees weren't going to be getting birth control through their health care plan anyway.

So the sisters are taking a stand, as are the other groups fighting the contraception provision. But maybe they should consider not doing it during work hours.