The government lawyers are taking on The Little Sisters of the Poor. God help them.
A few years back the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandated coverage in employer health insurance for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. A religious exemption to the mandate was proposed that was so narrow that your parish — heck, the apostles themselves — would not have qualified.
When all hell broke loose over this in an election year – and a ton of lawsuits over this violation of religious freedom commenced — an “accommodation” to the mandate was promised. That accommodation, announced last June, is a joke. Yes, this time around your parish would be exempted, as would all churches directly. But the exemption did not apply to a host of other faith-based institutions — schools, hospitals and charities. Charities, for example, such as those operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor that beg for funds from parishes and on the streets to care for the indigent elderly. These faith-based entities would be required by the government to sign a form that would force their health insurance companies or administrators to provide the HHS-mandated services.
The government smiles sweetly and says, “Just sign the papers and you don’t have to pay for it. Problem solved.” Which is a scary insight into the moral compass of government bureaucracies. Anybody raised with a sprinkling of moral education — or on old movies — knows that when the guy is smiling and asking you to sign the paper to permit something you know to be wrong, you are about to sign away your soul. The Little Sisters of the Poor responded that they couldn’t sign such papers. That would mean formal cooperation in sin.
There’s a good chance with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granting them a temporary injunction against government enforcement of the mandate’s penalties that the Little Sisters of the Poor may end up before the highest court in the land. (The Supreme Court, on Jan. 24, temporarily affirmed this injunction.) The bottom line on all this is that the HHS mandate is a direct violation of constitutionally-protected freedom of religion.
But let’s add a Pittsburgh story about the Little Sisters of the Poor. On the evening of July 24, 1931, a fire broke out at a home in Pittsburgh where the Little Sisters of the Poor ministered to the indigent elderly. In the fire, 49 of the elderly poor were killed. They died alone and unknown, served and cared for lovingly without any questions by the Little Sisters when the rest of the world had forgotten them. The then bishop of Pittsburgh — Hugh Boyle — told the sisters to have the bodies released to the diocesan cathedral where he would preside at their funeral Mass. He thought it would be a simple thing. But on the day of the funeral, the largest crowd in the history of the cathedral gathered to remember eight poor souls known only to God, and the sisters that served them.
After the funeral, Bishop Boyle went on the radio to ask for donations to build a new home for the sisters and those they served. He said they would need $300,000 to rebuild. In the midst of the Depression, the people of Pittsburgh raised that and more so that the Little Sisters could continue their work.
The government lost unanimously when it argued recently in front of the Supreme Court that it had the right to define for a church who is or is not a minister of that faith (Hosanna Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2012). The same result can be anticipated when the government tries to argue why the Little Sisters of the Poor should be forced to sin. After all, the Little Sisters beat fire.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.