Nuns Back in Court as State AGs Fight for Planned Parenthood

Pennsylvania and California AGs have collected more than $25,000 from abortion industry

Little Sisters of the Poor / Getty Images
November 21, 2017

The Little Sisters of the Poor are once again at the center of a religious liberty court battle as California and Pennsylvania attempt to force them to cover abortifacients, by overturning a federal exemption from the Trump administration.

The Catholic nuns battled the Obama administration all the way to the Supreme Court to exercise their conscience rights against Obamacare's birth control mandate. The Department of Health and Human Services announced a new rule in October that would grant a conscience exemption to the nuns, whose mission focuses on assisting the elderly poor.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro have each filed legal challenges to force the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations that object to abortifacients to finance them in their employee healthcare plans.

The lead attorney for the nuns, Mark Rienzi of the legal nonprofit Becket Fund, announced that the nuns intend to intervene in those "divisive and unnecessary" suits. He accused the Democratic attorneys general of attempting to ingratiate themselves with political allies at the taxpayer's expense.

"Josh Shapiro and Xavier Becerra think attacking nuns is a way to score political points. These men may think their campaign donors want them to sue nuns, but our guess is most taxpayers disagree," Rienzi said in a statement. "No one needs nuns in order to get contraceptives, and no one needs these guys reigniting the last administration's divisive and unnecessary culture war."

Becerra and Shapiro have both received substantial political support from the abortion industry.

Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania was one of Shapiro's largest campaign donors in his 2016 campaign, shelling out nearly $20,000 in the race, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Shapiro's campaign website features a Stand with Planned Parenthood page and said he would make abortion rights a top priority. He announced his lawsuit challenging the Trump administration at a press conference held in a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood clinic.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office declined comment on the litigation and Shapiro's relationship with Planned Parenthood, instead referring to an October 11 release.

"The Trump Administration broke the law and undermined the health and economic independence of American women by issuing these rules, which allow any company to deny insurance coverage of contraception," Shapiro said in a statement posted to the attorney general's website, as well as that of Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania.

Becerra also received thousands of dollars from Planned Parenthood and NARAL during his tenure as a U.S. congressman. He has aggressively policed pro-life activists in office, filing 15 charges against Center for Medical Progress investigators over their undercover footage detailing Planned Parenthood's organ harvesting operations.

His office is already scheduled to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend a controversial state law that forces pro-life clinics and charities to provide references to abortion in their facilities.

"Women in consultation with doctors should be in control of their reproductive decisions. Period," Becerra said, "The Trump administration has handed those decisions to employers. The California Department of Justice will fight to protect every woman’s right to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare."

He told reporters that he saw the fight against the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious entities as essential to the "fundamental rights" of women.

"We're prepared in California to take all action, including legal action, to defend a woman's rights against this unacceptable attack," he said in an October conference call.

Religious activists praised the Little Sisters of the Poor for taking up the fight of religious liberty. Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, a policy advisor to The Catholic Association, said government regulators are distracting the nuns from their mission to fight policymakers interested in "political points" over religious liberty. He accused the mandate's backers of harboring anti-Catholic views in their attempts to force lay employers and religious organizations to violate church teaching on birth control.

"Once again, the Little Sisters of the Poor are forced to divert their attention from the care of the poor and elderly to defend themselves from the relentless bullying of those who want nuns to distribute contraceptives and abortifacients," Christie said. "These attempts seem to be based on naked ambition and anti-Catholicism.  We are confident that the Little Sisters will ultimately obtain the legal protection they deserve."

The Department of Health and Human Services has defended its handling of the rule, saying that it will not affect 99 percent of the population since it only applies to about 200 organizations that have requested conscience objections. It cited the mandate's dubious record in federal courts as a chief reason for the rule changes in an October announcement.

"The mandate as defined by the previous administration suffered defeats in court after court, including the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government cannot punish business owners for their faith," the agency said.

Update 8:21 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.