Skip to main content

Nuns' Obamacare challenge and the right

By Sally Kohn
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: Suit on behalf of Little Sisters of the Poor challenges contraception mandate
  • She says nuns' suit dovetails with unrelenting conservative opposition to Obamacare
  • She says Obamacare exempts nuns from contraceptive coverage mandate; why sue?
  • Kohn: Conservative lawyers for nuns have right-wing backers, using nuns to push agenda

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter at @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- "The Little Sisters do incredible work in the world and this case ... has brought their work to light."

That's NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue on Fox News, discussing (and disputing) the lawsuit brought on behalf of The Little Sisters of the Poor, a religiously affiliated, nonprofit charitable organization challenging the exemption procedures under Obamacare's contraception mandate.

And Hogue is right: The sisters, admirably, run nursing homes across the country. But the lawsuit brought in their name at the very least is, as The New York Times editorial board wrote, "an unjustified attempt by an employer to impose its religious views on workers" and at worst a wrongheaded co-optation of the notion of religious liberty. Either way, it certainly fits with the ongoing conservative partisan agenda to unravel the Affordable Care Act

The Little Sisters of the Poor order, based in Colorado, is already exempt from Obamacare's requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans cover the cost of contraception without a co-pay as part of ensuring comprehensive preventative health care for women. To claim that exemption, the Little Sisters simply have to sign a short form stating their religious exemption to contraception. That's it.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

This is not about the nuns having to cover contraception. This is about a piece of paper. In essence, the plaintiffs in the case are arguing, as Amanda Marcotte of Slate has pointed out, that filling out a form is a violation of their religious freedom. Sound a bit far-fetched? Indeed, that's what a federal judge and two appellate courts have already ruled.

And yet the case, and the ongoing conservative opposition to the contraception mandate, continues on. Late last month, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor surprisingly gave the nuns a temporary reprieve, blocking the requirement until the merits of the case can be considered

Certainly conservatives aren't pursuing attacking the contraception mandate to win a popularity contest. Data show that 98% of sexually experienced Catholic women of child-bearing age have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives and that 82% of Catholics -- and 89% of Americans overall -- say that contraception use is morally acceptable.

Even so, conservatives grasping for any threads to try and unravel health care reform turned their ire on this portion of the Affordable Care Act

But the administration has already amended the law to address the objections of religious conservatives -- mainly, it should be noted, Catholics, as it was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that helped lead the push against the contraception mandate.

The Obama administration exempted all religious organizations, including churches, from the mandate. And the administration created the exemption for religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations that object to birth control.

In signing a simple self-certifying waver, these nonprofits alert their insurance companies or third-party administrator to their objection, and that company then provides contraceptive coverage at no charge to women who work at the nonprofit.

Obama pick halts contraceptive mandate
Fighting the 'contraception mandate'

The Little Sister's counsel argue that signing the exemption form is still tacitly facilitating the provision of contraception through the nonprofit's insurer. Except it's not.

As Michael Hiltzik points out in the Los Angeles Times, "The sisters' insurer [Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust] is also exempt from the mandate, because the health plan isn't governed by ERISA, the federal law under which the mandate is imposed. In other words, signing the form doesn't lead to contraceptive services either."

So one can't help but wonder what's really motivating the lawsuit.

The Little Sisters are being represented by a religiously affiliated legal group pushing a broader conservative agenda to dismantle Obamacare. While the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has pursued a handful of bipartisan cases, the majority of its lawsuits hew to the agenda of the religious right. It's an agenda to which the Becket Fund is tied ideologically and financially, the monitoring organization Political Research Associates has noted.

In addition to Catholic Church-affiliated backers, the Becket Fund enjoys major support from ideologically driven conservative foundations, such as the Bradley Foundation, whose other grantees include the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute, partisan institutions leading the conservative fight against Obamacare.

Note the Becket Fund is also the source of the attorneys behind the Hobby Lobby case in which a private corporation that willingly opts to receive special, favorable government treatment under that status is nonetheless alleging it should also qualify as a religious entity for purposes of exemption from the health care law's contraception mandate.

Here's the thing: No one is saying that the Little Sisters of the Poor should have to pay for contraception for their employees. There's an exemption under Obamacare. For which the nuns qualify. If only they would sign the form.

In other words, the law already works for groups like the Little Sisters. They don't want to fund contraception coverage and, under Obamacare, they don't have to.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT