Sunday, January 17, 2021

Little Sisters of the Poor and Religious Liberty: Debunking the Myths

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By Sister Constance Veit, LSP

As Little Sisters of the Poor we find our joy in sharing our lives with those whom many in our society would prefer to forget –  the elderly poor.

Our mission calls us to live far from the spotlight, but in the last seven years we have found ourselves in the public square more times than we could have ever imagined or desired.

Despite three wins at the Supreme Court, an Executive Order and a new rule that protects us and other non-profit religious groups from the unconstitutional HHS contraceptive mandate, our legal saga is not yet completely over. Several states and many politicians have promised not to rest until they succeed in stealing our hard-won exemption from the HHS mandate away from us.

For many of our Sisters, this time in the public eye has been a source of anxiety and a chronic distraction from our mission of caring for the elderly. We are grateful for the many people who have reached out to support us and assure us of their prayers.

However, we have also been subjected to criticism, derision and even death threats. We’d like nothing better than to return to our mission unhindered by the fear of millions of dollars in fines. But our name still appears in the daily news cycle and much of what is said about us is inaccurate.

To clarify the confusion I would like to respond to some of the most common questions and criticisms we face, including the following: 1) You shouldn’t be involved in politics; 2) You seek to impose your religious beliefs on people who do not share your faith; 3) You do not care about women who are prescribed hormonal contraceptives for a variety of health issues; 4) Your religious liberty claims are really nothing more than a cover for discrimination.

First. We are, and always have been, apolitical. We have been very distressed by the politicization of our case. We never wanted this fight and after our victory at the Supreme Court in 2016 we thought it was over.

We were relieved beyond measure to retreat from the limelight and return to our mission of caring for the elderly without the threat of multi-million dollar fines hanging over our heads. But then a number of states sued to take away our hard-earned exemption. Faced with the possibility of huge fines once again, we had no choice but to return to Court.

Second. We are not trying to impose anything on anyone. We feel that others have repeatedly tried to impose their values on us by insisting that we cooperate in the provision of services that are incompatible with our Catholic faith. We wish only to remain faithful to our own deeply held beliefs.

Our employees come from many different religious backgrounds and they are free to use contraceptives. These are readily available through many channels, often at no cost, without our involvement.

Third. We understand that many women are prescribed hormonal contraceptives to treat serious health issues. Catholic teaching has always allowed the use of “contraceptives” for legitimate therapeutic purposes. So, our employee health plans have always covered them in this context.

Fourth. The accusations of discrimination have been particularly hurtful to us. Throughout our 181-year history, we Little Sisters of the Poor have cared for needy elderly persons of every race or religion, even in a number of predominantly non-Christian countries.

We employ individuals regardless of race or religion and welcome the collaboration of people from diverse walks of life.

We believe that our willingness to care for and work with anyone is one of the truest ways to live out the religious faith that animates our ministry.

As we near the election, religious liberty matters will likely be at the forefront of political discussions. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a document entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. In the document, the USCCB states: “As Catholics, we are part of a community with a rich heritage that helps us consider the challenges in public life and contribute to greater justice and peace for all people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all more aware of our interdependence as brothers and sisters in one human family. We pray that this heightened sense of solidarity will foster a stronger sense of civility and mutual respect so that all Americans can freely live according to their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Featured image credit: Little Sisters of the Poor outside the Supreme Court in March, 2016 , for the Zubik v. Burwell case. Addie Mena/CNA.

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