The Little Sisters of the Poor V. Sebelius: A Little Victory for an Important Cause

by Alexander Marsland


The United States Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision on Friday to extend a temporary order that would allow a religious order of nuns to opt out of the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s controversial contraception mandate without having to file a government exemption form. The religious order claims that although the government form grants the possibility of exemption, having to even file it is already participation in the system, and is therefore implicit acceptance of the abortions and contraceptive coverage that the Affordable Care Act mandates. Thanks to the court order, the Little Sisters of the Poor may exempt themselves from the mandate by simply informing the Department of Health and Human Services of their religious objections.

The Little Sisters of the Poor had filed an appeal to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and two other religious health care providers joined the suit. Because these providers cover over 400 non-profit organizations, the decision on this appeal could potentially have large consequences for the legal conflict between the Obama administration’s ACA enforcement and its many institutional opponents. The Supreme Court, however, stressed that it “issues this order based on all of the circumstances of the case, and this order should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits.” The order only applies to this specific case, exempting two groups of the Little Sisters of the Poor from having to file a government exemption form until a ruling on the appeal is reached.


While this is a victory for the religious order and for the opposition to the ACA mandate because it allows for the possibility that these nuns might not have to ever be abetting the process of legalized abortion and contraception, it is not a major victory as this tragedy is still quite possible. This was a relatively minor conflict in comparison with the appeal in the Tenth Circuit, from which any significance of this case is derived. The reasoning for the court order, it seems, is that because the appeal is still under review, and because implementation of the ACA (or at least this part of it) has already begun, enforcement of the mandate would signify a premature decision on the appeal. The order is thus a provisional method of ensuring the neutrality of the law to an unresolved legal circumstance. The court has interpreted that the implementation of the mandate, at least for now, only requires that the government be notified of the provider’s objection in this specific case.


Under the current law, only religious organizations have the ability to file for exemptions from the mandate, and besides these two groups of the religious order, even these organizations that can apply for an exemption still have to file the government form. Furthermore, the aforementioned group that appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court has not had its case accepted as a class lawsuit in the lower courts, and therefore each organization will have to appeal separately for protection from the mandate and government exemption.


The legal battle concerning the implementation of the ACA contraception mandate and the mandate itself has barely begun. It seems there is still a possibility that the groups involved in the tenth circuit court appeal can get their case approved as a class lawsuit, and the ruling of the court will undoubtedly have a great effect on the outcome. Even after this decision is made, the case may end up in the Supreme Court again. Moreover, the multitude of private businesses must also have their grievances addressed. The Supreme Court’s handling of this case, then, at most signifies the length of time it will take for the debate to be resolved. The Little Sisters of the Poor submitted their case to the Supreme Court on January 3rd and this ad hoc decision, which is unanimous and only one page long, has just been issued. The complexity and controversial constitutionality of many parts of this law and its mandate have so far shown a long and tedious legal conflict.


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