By now most Americans have heard about the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order totally devoted to caring for the elderly poor. As nuns, the sisters take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the case of this order, they take a fourth vow, the vow of hospitality, since their mission involves receiving the poor into their midst. In short, the Little Sisters of the Poor represent and embody powerlessness, weakness and humility. They do their work quietly. However, they now find themselves standing publicly before the most powerful court in the land, the Supreme Court.
The Little Sisters object to the provision in the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare) which requires that birth control contraceptives (this includes two forms of contraception which destroy fertilized eggs) be available as a part of the mandatory health care coverage. For the Little Sisters, any compliance with such a demand would make them complicit in the destruction of human life, which violates their Christian conscience. The government has provided a so-called “religious exemption” but this is problematic for the Little Sisters because their conscience not only forbids them to provide contraception, it also forbids them to authorize the insurance company to pay for it. In fact, the word “exemption” is not an accurate description of the government provision since the certification would not exempt the Little Sisters from providing contraceptives to their employees. Rather, it merely shifts the responsibility of payment to the insurer. However, the Little Sisters can neither participate in, nor authorize others to participate in, an act which results in the destruction of human life. In short, they now stand before the Supreme Court awaiting a decision.
I believe that this case represents an important milestone in the history of religious liberty in the United States. The drama surrounding this case had been heightened because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, 2016, probably the strongest ally of the Little Sisters on the court. The court is now ideologically divided. If the court reaches a tie then the ruling of the lower court stands. I am not optimistic that the Little Sisters will receive a positive verdict. But I still argue that, in the end, the Little Sisters will prevail. Why? Because the Little Sisters are truly conscience bound. They will not comply even if the verdict goes against them. They cannot comply because, for them, they respond to a Higher Court and to the Judge of all the earth. That, in the end, trumps all human courts.
So, what will the government do when the Little Sisters refuse to pay for that part of the premium which supports contraceptives? Their first plan is to start levying fines against the order. According to official estimates, the fines would be $100 per employee per day. This would mean annual fees of 70 million dollars. Now, there is no doubt that there are hundreds of donors who would step forward and gladly help pay the annual fines for the Little Sisters. But, the Little Sisters will not permit it. They will not pay a fine, and they will not let anyone else pay their fines, because, for them, it is a matter of conscience. “Big Brother” has no right to demand that the “Little Sisters” pay for, or authorize others to pay for, abortive contraceptives. They will not comply. Because, for them, this is not a “preference” it is a “conviction.”
At this point, the government has few options. It would be exceedingly difficult for the government to “shut down” an organization whose sole purpose is to care for the poor. It would also be difficult to put a celibate nun in prison for her not being willing to purchase contraceptives. This is one of those situations where the powerless actually have the most power. The long arm of government has no power over those who have no power to begin with. They have already renounced the world. They have already taken a vow of poverty. All they have is their conscience and there is no court in the world which can compel someone to go against their conscience. The Little Sisters will prevail. This, my friends, should encourage all Christians everywhere because this is the same hope we all have. We are saddened by the erosion of religious liberty in the United States. But, we can only be defeated if our convictions become preferences. A man or women with unshakeable convictions cannot be defeated by any power in the world, because we have already laid our lives down for the gospel. “What, then can mere man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).