The Little Sisters of the Poor take fight for religious liberty to the Supreme Court

March 25, 2016

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for one of the most significant cases involving religious liberty it has taken up in decades —Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.  

So who are the Little Sisters, and how did they end up at the highest court in our land?

The Little Sisters of the Poor are an organization of nuns who offer homes and care for impoverished elderly people around the world. Their lives are given to the hundreds of humble tasks of caring for the elderly poor, feeding them, meeting their physical needs and providing them with heavenly hope.

They pay for their work by a tradition of begging. Through daily rounds to local businesses asking for food and other items to offset their operating expenses, small fundraising campaigns and weekend visits to churches, the nuns scrape together their meager budget, trusting that God will provide.  

And now, through complicated regulations stemming from the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), the government is giving them the option to either violate their conscience or pay huge fines, fines that would dramatically cut into their service to the poor.

Their case, which involves The Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations, is a consolidation of several cases all asking the Court to do the same thing—uphold their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion. Specifically, they are asking to be allowed to exercise their sincerely held religious belief about the sanctity of life by not being forced to provide access to their employees to contraception with abortive effects.  The issues at hand arose when the Affordable Care Act was passed into law and certain parts of the law had to be filled in by regulation. One of those regulations dealt with health insurance plans providing various types of contraception, including some that Christians of numerous denominations consider to be equivalent to abortion.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, and many other religious organizations that aren’t covered by a church exemption to this regulation, objected because it violates their conscience to be a part of providing the mandated abortion pills. The government tried various ways to make it better, but each one failed to address the issues of conscience raised by the groups.

The government’s ultimate solution allowed the groups to abstain from paying for the drugs, but required them to give their employees a form that entitles the employee to free abortion-pills financed by the government. The government argues that it is providing a sufficient accommodation for the religious groups, because they no longer have to directly pay for the controversial drugs. Yet, their “solution” still requires the Little Sisters to affirmatively act and participate in the government's scheme to provide contraception and abortifacients.

David French at National Review succinctly explains why this is a significant problem for religious liberty:

But here’s the problem: The certification is not an “opt out,” it’s a document that actually empowers a third party to provide free abortion pills. In that way, it’s more like a voucher than an opt-out. Imagine if the government said to a religious employer, “We’re not going to require you to pay for abortions, but we will require you to provide employees with a document that entitles them to a free abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic down the street.” Would anyone think for a moment that respected religious liberty? Yet that’s the essence of the government “accommodation” here. The Little Sisters object to providing an abortion/contraception voucher — a voucher that could be redeemed for free abortifacients at the discretion of a third-party administrator. 

The government argues that it is simply providing a way for the Little Sisters to object, and then the insurance provides the contraception without any cost to the Little Sisters. But, again, this is not an issue about money; this is an issue of conscience.

The Little Sisters' conscience will not allow them to take any action that leads to the dispersal of abortifacients. Right now, by filing a form or writing to HHS to tell them of their religious objection and the details of their insurance plan, the Little Sisters are still complicit. After they take this action, their insurer is required to provide contraception free of charge. 

The Little Sisters view this as a sin. Their religious freedom is burdened. 

So after many cases involving this violation of religious liberty wound their way through the lower courts, the Supreme Court agreed to consolidate the cases and hear The Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell this term.

In oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the eight justices seemed predictably divided. The four reliably liberal justices all posed questions that clearly supported the government’s position. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito seemed in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations. Justice Thomas is believed to favor them as well. With Justice Scalia’s seat being vacant, that leaves Justice Kennedy as the usual swing vote.  

The Washington Post’s breakdown of oral arguments provides insight into what each justice is thinking.

If Justice Kennedy sides with the conservatives as he did in Hobby Lobby, then the outcome will most likely be 4-4. When there is a tie, the decision of the lower court reigns.  In this case, religious organizations have lost in seven U.S. Circuits, with only one U.S. Circuit upholding religious liberty. Another option would be for the Court to call for the case to be reargued next term, presumably after a new justice has been appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.

In the next few months, we must take to our knees in prayer for the justices, specifically, Justice Kennedy, as they decide the fate of religious liberty in our country as we know it.  The sincerely held religious beliefs in this case are just the tip of the iceberg of the religious liberty implications of Supreme Court jurisprudence which could weigh the regulatory state’s agenda above our fundamental right to freely exercise our religion.  

There is a lot at stake for America in this case, but thankfully we have a Heavenly Father who holds all things together. Especially as Easter approaches and we remember the sacrifice on the cross and the defeat of sin and death on our behalf, we can take comfort and continue fighting—for religious liberty for all people, for nuns who serve the elderly poor and for the hearts, minds and souls of all of our fellow Americans.

Palmer Williams

Palmer specializes in legal and policy analysis related to international human rights, sanctity of life, and government affairs. As a licensed attorney specializing in international law, she has extensive experience advocating for human rights on the international stage, including at the United Nations. She earned her Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24