For more than 150 years, we Little Sisters of the Poor have served the elderly poor across the nation, starting with our first US house in Brooklyn. This is our calling as a Roman Catholic order. So we’re grateful to God — and to the US Supreme Court — for this week’s decision saving us from having to pay for contraceptives against our beliefs or face crippling fines.
The decision means we can continue our services in New York and throughout the country, especially amid the pandemic, when the elderly poor are more vulnerable than ever before.
Our story begins in the Brittany region of France. On a cold winter’s night in 1839, Jeanne Jugan happened upon a blind and paralyzed elderly woman alone on the streets. She carried the woman home to her own bed and cared for her like family. That very night, Jeanne made a vow to the Lord that she would give her life in service to the elderly poor, so that these precious children of God wouldn’t be forgotten in their old age and infirmity.
Today, we continue Saint Jeanne’s work and dedicate our lives to fulfilling her promise. But the path hasn’t always been straight, and our work hasn’t gone unopposed. During this time of crisis for our nation, our order’s own battle has came to a head.
Seven years ago, our ministry faced an impossible choice: comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate by providing coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients in our health plans or cough up millions of dollars in fines. We were paralyzed.
We knew immediately that complying with the mandate was not an option. To do so would have been an irreconcilable contradiction of the belief that guides our ministry and life’s work — that every life is sacred from conception until natural death. We could not hold the hands of the poor and dying while facilitating the killing of precious unborn life.
We went to court, determined to defend our ministry from an unjust infringement on our religious freedom. In 2016, the Supreme Court protected us, ordering the federal government to go back to the drawing board and find a solution that didn’t involve forcing Catholic nuns to facilitate contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. In 2017, the government did just that, issuing a new religious exemption that protected ministries like ours from the contraceptive mandate.
But our fight didn’t end there. A coalition of states, determined to force us to comply with the mandate, sued the federal government, challenging its authority to create the exemption that saved our ministry. In April, we returned to the Supreme Court to defend that exemption. And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously granted us that protection.
We feel vindicated after a nearly decade-long legal struggle.
Old age and infirmity don’t discriminate. They find us all if we live long enough. It’s the inevitable end of life, in which our community finds joy, beauty, and purpose. The elderly deserve to be supported by the love of those who see the value of their life from beginning to end.
Our foundress said: “God will help us; the work is his.” As Little Sisters, we never lost faith in God’s protection during our trip through the US courts. We are delighted that the high court has protected our religious freedom. In short, the Supreme Court has given us back our freedom to serve. And we can’t wait to do it.
Sister Loraine Marie Maguire is a mother provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.
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