State courts hear oral arguments on religious exemption for contraceptive coverage

A group of Little Sisters of the Poor are joined by other women as they walk down the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in 2016 after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- The U.S. District Court in Philadelphia heard oral arguments Dec. 14 in a suit that aims to take away the exemption granted in October to the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious employers allowing them to refuse to cover contraceptives for their employees on moral grounds.

A similar hearing took place Dec. 12 in U.S. District Court in Oakland, California. As arguments were heard inside, supporters of the religious order gathered outside of both courthouses.

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The Little Sisters of the Poor have been in the spotlight for the past several years because of their moral objection to the Department of Health and Human Services requirement that most religious employers cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plan.

The Trump administration Oct. 6 issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate for religious employers.

Days after the rule was issued, Pennsylvania and California filed complaints against the federal government over the exemption. Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia joined California's lawsuit to become the first plaintiff group to file a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to prevent the new exemption rule from going into effect.

On Dec. 15, a federal judge in Pennsylvania, Judge Wendy Beetlestone, temporarily blocked the new exemption rule from going into effect.

Becket, a religious liberty law firm, is representing the Little Sisters in both cases filed after the Trump administration handed down its new rules. The cases are Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Trump and the State of California v. Hargan. "Hargan" is Eric D. Hargan, acting HHS secretary.

"As Little Sisters of the Poor, all we want is to follow our calling to love and to serve and finally put this legal ordeal behind us," Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Little Sisters of the Poor, said in a statement.

The cases are being heard, respectively, by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The lawsuits claim that the exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate pushes the cost burden to states.

In the California suit, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the HHS ruling providing the religious exemption violates constitutional amendments because it allows employers to use religious beliefs to discriminate against employees and denies women their rights to equal protection under the law.

"After the Little Sisters' four-year fight, a Supreme Court victory, and a new rule that protects women like them, (Pennsylvania) Attorney General (Josh) Shapiro still went to court to take away their rights," said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, said in a Dec. 14 statement.

"He then argued that the Little Sisters shouldn't even be allowed to come to this court today to make their case," she added.

Becket has argued all along that the government has many ways to provide services to women who want them as well as protect the Little Sisters. "Neither the federal government nor the state governments need nuns to help them give out contraceptives," it said in a news release.

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