The legal battle will continue for Catholic colleges and other religious nonprofits and institutions challenging the Obama administration’s contraception mandate following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to send the issue back to lower courts.
“We are nearing what seems to be a very happy ending to a terrible chapter in America’s history of religious tolerance,” said Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly. “Catholics should be very proud of the Little Sisters but also the other courageous organizations who have stood strong against this injustice — including the most faithful Catholic colleges and schools, which figured prominently in the legal and social battles to halt the HHS mandate.”
The eight U.S. Supreme Court justices unanimously vacated the appellate court decisions in their ruling. The case most notably involves the Little Sisters of the Poor, but a number of Catholic colleges and schools are also involved in the legal challenge, standing their ground in defiance of the HHS contraception/abortifacient/sterilization mandate. Monday’s ruling follows the government’s admission last month that it need not force religious objectors to provide contraception coverage as part of the HHS mandate, and it signals further potential lower court victories for Catholic institutions in the near future.
“This is a game-changer,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The Court has accepted the government’s concession that it can get drugs to people without using the Little Sisters,” he continued. “The Court has eliminated all of the bad decisions from the lower courts. And the Court has forbidden the government from fining the Little Sisters even though they are refusing to bow to the government’s will. It is only a matter of time before the lower courts make this victory permanent.”
Eight Catholic colleges recommended in The Newman Guide filed in court against the Obama administration at some point following the adoption of the HHS mandate, each experiencing different outcomes. Those institutions include Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn.; The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla.; Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.; Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio; Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo.; Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.; and the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas.
Belmont Abbey College filed the nation’s first suit against the mandate in November 2011, and refiled again in November 2013 after the court declined judgement. But the College withdrew its case after obtaining Christian Brothers insurance, the same provider of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The decision in the Little Sisters’ case will affect Belmont Abbey.
A total of seven cases challenging the HHS mandate were consolidated in Zubik v. Burwell and heard before the Supreme Court on March 23. Among the cases that went before the Court, The Catholic University of America and Thomas Aquinas College were named plaintiffs, along with several Catholic high schools immediately affected by the Court’s decision. Now, with the adverse decisions vacated, all cases will be remanded to their respective lower courts to await a new ruling.
In January, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in coordination with the Newman Society and six national religious organizations filed an amicus brief, urging the Supreme Court to protect the sincerely-held religious beliefs of Catholic universities, colleges and schools. The Newman Society has worked for many years to help Catholic colleges and schools develop policies that strengthen their Catholic identity and protect their religious freedom.
The HHS mandate is the “elephant in the room” threatening faithful Catholic education, said Bob Laird, vice president for program development at the Newman Society, after the brief was filed. “If our schools can teach the faith and the public good in the classroom but not practice it in the conduct of their own business, then education is merely an ideological shell with no substance.”
The Catholic colleges that did not oppose the mandate have much to learn from the Little Sisters’ example.
“The Little Sisters, known for their meekness and mercy, have taught a powerful lesson in fortitude,” Reilly said. “Their example stands in stark contrast to the failure of most Catholic colleges to oppose the HHS mandate, and Notre Dame’s compliance with the mandate, even while it gave lip service to the claim that complying would violate its Catholic mission.”