WASHINGTON, September 24, 2015 (ChurchMilitant.com) - While in Washington D.C., the Holy Father made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, currently locked in a legal battle with Obama over the implementation of the "Obamacare" contraception mandate.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed the visit was not on the pope's itinerary and is a sign of support for the Sisters in their struggle for religious freedom.
The Little Sisters of the Poor provide low-income housing, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities for the elderly across the United States. They've been trying to get an exemption from the 2012 HHS Mandate forcing them to provide insurance coverage for birth control, sterilizations and abortion-causing drugs in employee health plans. Although the Mandate provides for an opt-out provision, the Sisters argue that signing the opt-out clause makes them morally complicit in facilitating evil, as it gives third-party insurers permission to step in and provide contraception for employees.
In July a federal court determined the Sisters didn't adequately establish the mandate was a "substantial burden" on their free exercise of religion. Earlier this month, after seven out of the 12 federal judges refused to re-hear the case, five judges wrote a dissent, commenting, "When a law demands that a person do something the person considers sinful, and the penalty for refusal is a large financial penalty, then the law imposes a substantial burden on that person's free exercise of religion."
The judges further commented that the decision is "clearly and gravely wrong — on an issue that has little to do with contraception and a great deal to do with religious liberty." And on the point that the decision fails to respect the Sisters' beliefs and rather tries to reframe those beliefs, they argue that "it is not the job of the judiciary to tell people what their religious beliefs are."
The Sisters would have to pay fines as high as $2.5 million for each year they don't comply — that's as much as 40 percent of their yearly operating cost.
The Mother Provincial of the Little Sisters responded, "We perform this loving ministry because of our faith and simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith, and we shouldn't have to."