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President Trump with little sisters of the Poor at the White House Rose Garden on the National Day of Prayer, May 4, 2017.

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Federal judges block Trump admin, force religious sisters to pay for contraception

January 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Just as new Trump administration rules sparing objectors from subsidizing contraception against their will were slated to take effect, two federal judges have issued injunctions to keep the Obamacare mandate in place for the time being.

In November, the administration announced two final rules to protect Americans from being forced to subsidize abortion in government-mandated health insurance plans. One of the rules covered conscience objections on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs,” and the other protected small businesses and nonprofits with non-religious moral objections.

The administration explained that the rules would also protect churches, integrated auxiliaries, religious orders, non-governmental educational institutions, various other types of non-governmental employees with religious objections, health insurance issuers that serve exempted individuals or plan sponsors, and individuals covered by either employer-based insurance or individual plans. Of particular concern was the fact that some “contraceptives” function by killing an already-conceived embryonic human.

The rules were supposed to take effect Monday, but the Ninth Circuit struck a blow to the Little Sisters of the Poor Sunday evening when Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr., an Obama appointee, granted a preliminary injunction to the state of California, along with Washington, D.C. The injunction meant the change wouldn’t take effect in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, or the District of Columbia while the plaintiffs’ lawsuit advances.

The next day, U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Pennsylvania issued an injunction against the rollback that extends to the entire country, Yahoo reports. She ruled that the states “stand to suffer injury to their interest in protecting the safety and well-being of their citizens.”

Gilliam claimed that the states suing the administration had demonstrated reversal of the Obama-era rule would threaten them with “potentially dire public health and fiscal consequences,” and that the Trump rollback would have the effect of “depriving female employees, students and other beneficiaries” of “seamlessly-provided contraceptive coverage at no cost.”

“No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our health care system," Heath and Human Services Department spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in response to the first ruling, Politico reports. "The final rules affirm the Trump Administration’s commitment to upholding the freedoms afforded all Americans under our Constitution.”

Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, lamented that the rulings threaten “the rights of religious women like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who now “have no choice but to keep fighting this unnecessary fight so they can protect their right to focus on caring for the poor.” He added, however, that he was “confident this decision will be overturned.”

In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Rienzi said that the states’ claim is more extreme than what the Obama administration argued in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

“The Obama administration’s claim was that they [the Little Sisters] were allowed to have religious exemptions, which was right, but they didn’t have to give one to the Little Sisters. They never won that claim,” he said.  

Despite arguing several times before the Supreme Court, Rienzi said, the Obama administration was not allowed to enforce its will against a religious objector.  He warned that the states claim that the federal government is not allowed to give a religious exemption to the Little Sisters of the Poor. “It is an extreme claim that the nuns must give out contraception, even if the government says ‘we want to do it some other way,’ the states are saying ‘No, you have to make the nuns do it.’” He added that he is confident that the Little Sisters will win an eventual case before the Supreme Court.

According to the Becket Fund, the federal government admitted that it broke the law by trying to force the Little Sisters and others to provide contraception in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs. The government issued a new rule in October 2017 that protected the religious exemptions of the Little Sisters and others. Despite the announcement,  the state of California sued the federal government to eliminate the religious exemption. California has numerous contraceptive programs of its own, and it never filed suit over the much larger secular exemptions created by the Obama administration for corporations such as Pepsi and Chevron, according to Becket, that applied to tens of millions more people than the religious exemption. Also, the state has not identified a single person who had contraceptive coverage but will lose it because of the new rule.

“California, however, asked a judge to force the Little Sisters to comply with the federal mandate (not a state mandate),” says the Becket website, “or pay tens of millions of dollars of government fines.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor, which offers health care to the elderly poor, have been fighting the mandate since 2013. When California and Pennsylvania initially sued in 2017 to prevent the Trump administration from curtailing the contraception mandate, Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters commented: “We just want to be able to continue our religious mission of caring for the elderly poor as we have over 175 years,” and added, “We pray that these state governments will leave us alone and let us do our work in peace.”

According to Bloomberg, Caitlin Oakley of the Department of Health & Human Services said, “No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our healthcare system.”

Writing at the Daily Wire, Paul Bois argued that defenders of the mandate “neglect, ignore, or simply lie about the fact that women who want birth control will still be able to get it, given that the United States provides it in virtually every drug store available.” Also of concern to conservative legal observers is the suggestion that a policy enacted unilaterally by one president cannot be reversed the same way by his successor.

The Trump administration is expected to appeal the injunction.

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