I am a woman who stands in solidarity with the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Last Tuesday, other women, members of the women’s advocacy group Women Speak For Themselves, gathered before federal district court to tell California Attorney General Xavier Becerra one thing: Leave the Little Sisters alone.
The government is powerful enough to provide contraceptives through its own methods, without the help of Catholic nuns.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are a group of Catholic nuns who have cared for the elderly poor for over 175 years. They serve the most vulnerable in society until their dying breath. They support their good work by begging, just as their foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, did on the streets of France.
Faith motivates their vital work – work they have done with quiet dignity for decades. But for the last four years, the Little Sisters have been dragged into a legal battle that never needed to happen. A federal mandate, which claimed to be necessary for all women, forced these religious women to provide services such as the week-after pill in their employee health plans, in violation of their Catholic faith, or pay tens of millions in fines.
The ordeal finally ended with the Supreme Court ordering the government to accommodate the Little Sisters in May 2016. And in October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reversed its mandate and issued a new rule that finally protected religious ministries from having to provide services that violate their beliefs.
It was a major victory for religious freedom and one that should have ensured the Little Sisters’ case would come to an end.
Yet here they are again, back in court for round two. This time, the Little Sisters are defending themselves against Becerra, who is suing the Trump administration to take away the religious exemption that the Little Sisters just won.
This lawsuit is particularly ridiculous because the government handed out exemptions from the mandate to big businesses like Exxon, Visa and Pepsi, and even the government’s own healthcare plan. But Becerra isn’t suing Pepsi to provide contraceptives – just the Little Sisters. And he’s threatening them with crushing fines unless they comply.
Becerra argues that this is a public interest issue and a women’s issue. But the Little Sisters of the Poor are women. They’re women of faith and their beliefs are constitutionally protected.
At the court hearing, the Little Sisters and nearly 50 supporters gathered outside the court to show just whose rights are at stake here. Inside the court, the Little Sisters’ lawyer from Becket argued that the Sisters have the right to defend their hard-won rights so they can continue their caring ministry.
Becket, the non-profit religious liberty law firm defending the Little Sisters, has told the court again and again that the government is powerful enough to provide contraceptives through its own methods, without the help of Catholic nuns. If women want contraceptives, they can get them for free or at a very low cost in many places.
The government already spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to accomplish this through a myriad of ways. Nuns aren’t one of them.
Women Speak For Themselves empowers women to speak up, and we have supported the Little Sisters of the Poor every step of the way. The Little Sisters’ fight isn’t over.
Our women across the country are standing with them. Becerra should listen to the Supreme Court and the federal government and leave the Little Sisters alone. Because when he picks a fight with the Little Sisters of the Poor, he picks a fight with all women.
Meg McDonnell is the executive director for Women Speak For Themselves, a women’s advocacy group that launched a campaign for religious freedom in 2012 in response to the federal birth control mandate. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @MegTMcDonnell.