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Birth control battle continues for famous nuns

POSTED: November 22, 2017 8:10 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Sister Maureen takes a photo of the newly renovated interior with Sister Laurelliya, both of the Little Sisters of the Poor from Scranton, Pa., while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. (Robert Sabo/The Daily News via AP, Pool)

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The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns famous for their fight against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, may soon be back in court. They've filed motions to intervene in two lawsuits aimed at blocking the Trump administration's new protections for religious objectors to birth control, the nuns' lawyers announced Tuesday.

"If these courts are going to decide whether the Little Sisters get religious liberty rights, (they should) at least be able to hear from them and not just be listening to a fight between state and federal governments," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket, during a Nov. 21 press call.

The lawsuits — Pennsylvania v. Trump and California v. Hargan — were filed last month in response to new federal birth control policies. The Trump administration now allows any non-government employer with religious or moral objections to contraception coverage to remove it from company insurance plans.

"Donald Trump wants businesses and corporations to control family planning decisions rather than a woman in consultation with her doctor," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a Oct. 6 statement to The Sacramento Bee. "We'll see the Trump administration in court."

Becerra and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro argue that expanded exemptions to the contraception mandate harm the people in their states, violating constitutional protections for women.

"I don't look forward to suing the president, but it is my job to uphold the rule of law," Shapiro said in an Oct. 12 news conference, according to Philadelphia Magazine.

Rienzi casts these lawsuits in a different light, criticizing them as "political grandstanding" that puts people of faith in the crosshairs.

"It's cool to sue the federal government these days," he said.

The nuns' new motions are the latest chapter in a six-year saga centered on religious objections to contraception.

Dozens of religiously affiliated schools and nonprofits, as well as the faithful owners of closely held for-profit corporations, have fought the contraception mandate from the beginning, seeking faith-based exemptions because birth control violates their religious beliefs. The Little Sisters, a Catholic order providing health care services to the elderly poor, quickly became the face of this protest, inspiring rallying cries like #LetThemServe.

The Little Sisters were part of the Zubik v. Burwell Supreme Court case, argued in March 2016, before justices sent the case back to the lower courts, urging a compromise between the federal government and religious objectors. That case is still ongoing, and Rienzi says his clients hope for a permanent resolution to the contraception debate.

The Trump administration's policy shift was supposed to be a step in that direction, encouraging an end to the birth-control battle. However, it just led to new lawsuits from California, Pennsylvania, the ACLU and the National Women's Law Center.

Until the fight over exemptions to the contraception mandate ends, the Little Sisters will continue to call for compromise, Rienzi said. If their motions to intervene are granted, the nuns will have an opportunity to address how changes to the Trump administration's policy would harm them.

"The Little Sisters will tell the judges in these new cases what they have successfully told the Supreme Court time and again: Governments do not need nuns to give out contraceptives. Our big country has room enough and space enough for a diversity of ideas," he said.

Hearings for Pennsylvania v. Trump and California v. Hargan will take place in mid-December.
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