WASHINGTON (RNS) Amid the helium balloons, dance music, chants and counterchants, Katie Stone and Katie Breslin spelled out their opposing views outside the Supreme Court as the justices inside heard one of the most contentious cases of the year.
The two 20-something Christians, both motivated by faith, say the justices’ ruling in Zubik v. Burwell could affirm or weaken the most basic of rights. The case asks whether religious nonprofits must comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, or whether it violates the federal law that sets a high bar for government infringement on religious rights.
Stone traveled for 21 hours from her evangelical Oklahoma university to Washington, D.C., so she could rally against the mandate as an affront to religious freedom. Breslin, who is Catholic, said her conscience leads her to support the mandate because it protects women’s right to health care and self-determination.
Stone, 20, a freshman at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, said she must stand with the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of seven plaintiffs suing the Obama administration in the case. “They are being told that they have to provide life-ending drugs and life-ending processes that we don’t even believe in,” she said. “That doesn’t seem like religious freedom at all, because we’re being told to support something that we don’t believe in.”
Breslin, 24, who moved to Washington, D.C., from her native Pennsylvania to attend Trinity Washington University, a Catholic women’s college, said the federal government has offered sufficient accommodations for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious groups that don’t want to comply with the mandate. The wrong ruling in the case would threaten the rights of women to the contraceptives that are such a key part of their health care, she said.
“My faith, my Catholicism, has brought me to my pro-choice activism. I can’t see one without the other,” said Breslin, who chairs the Women’s Information Network, a forum of young Democratic women who support abortion rights. “I believe each person has the right to make decisions based on their consciences. My conscience and my decision to use birth control are based on my faith.”
The Roman Catholic Church in which Breslin was raised rejects all forms of artificial birth control, though as many Catholic as non-Catholic American women — upward of 98 percent of those of childbearing age — will use it within their lifetimes. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order that cares for the elderly, is the face of Zubik v. Burwell, and many of the Little Sisters gathered outside the court to cheer with crowds holding signs that said of the contraception mandate, “I’ll have nun of it.”
Some of the other six plaintiffs in the case don’t object to providing all the contraception the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to offer, but just those that could — in their view — induce abortion. Zubick v. Burwell resembles the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that a “closely held” for-profit corporation, such as the national craft store chain, does not have to comply with the mandate because it would violate the owners’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The nuns object not just to the mandate, but the way in which the government would exempt them from it: by having them sign a form or inform their insurer that it violates their religious beliefs. That act could trigger a process that gives the responsibility to cover birth control to a third party. Sister Veronica Susan, a Little Sister who came from Philadelphia to Washington to explain her views on the mandate, said waiving out of it still makes the sisters complicit.
“It’s really not our faith to do such a thing,” she said. “When something is waived, you are consenting. For us, we can’t just sign anything off. We have to be who we are, or we are not really authentic.”
Asked the same question — why it should be a burden for religious nonprofits to gain an accommodation by indicating that they don’t want to comply with the mandate — Stone posed another question: “Why should we have to accommodate for what we believe?” she asked. “Why should we need an accommodation for our freedom?”
But those who chanted and danced in front of the court in favor of the contraception mandate said it was women’s rights the court could trample. Access to birth control, they said, is the right to control one’s health and life, and the court shouldn’t permit women’s employers — no matter their religious beliefs — to take those rights away.
“As a Catholic I believe that everyone should have access to reproductive health care,” Breslin said. “I believe it is part of social justice.”
How does she feel that her church takes a different stand on the issue?
“We talk about the church in two different ways,” she said. “There’s the hierarchy and then there’s the church — the body of all of us. With 99 percent of Catholic women using birth control, I know that they’re with me.”
The justices may decide Zubik v. Burwell in the late spring or early summer.
(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for RNS)