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Nuns take sides as contraception fight heads to the Supreme Court

Nuns take sides in the debate over contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
A nun walks in the hallway at the Mullen Home for the Aged, run by Little Sisters of the Poor, in Denver, Colo. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP)
A nun walks in the hallway at the Mullen Home for the Aged, run by Little Sisters of the Poor, in Denver, Colo.

What do nuns have to do with birth control? Plenty, if you're following the battle over the Affordable Care Act's coverage provisions and the claim that requiring employers to pay for contraceptive coverage violates their religious freedom. 

Next week, the Obama administration will be back at the Supreme Court defending its signature health care law, this time against two private corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, who want an exemption from the requirement to cover contraception for their employees because of the owners' religious beliefs.

In January, nuns became the face of a separate opposition to that requirement: The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Colorado, operated by an order of nuns, filed an emergency petition before the Supreme Court claiming that the middle ground the Obama administration had crafted for religiously-affiliated non-profits -- signing a form for a third party administrator to cover contraception -- still violated their religious freedom. The Obama administration, attorneys for the Little Sisters said at the time, was "trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs."

Now, a separate group of nuns is taking the opposite tack, defending birth control coverage in the ACA in an online petition. The head of the National Coalition of American Nuns, Donna Quinn, told Religion Dispatches, “It isn’t ‘faith and freedom’ when reproductive autonomy isn’t extended by the Catholic Church to women. Now we have other Christian religions seeing what the bishops are doing and saying we will do likewise. It isn’t freedom when a woman can be held hostage by the owner of a business.”

The petition asks others to join the group of nuns. It declares, "We know that religious freedom means that each person has the right to exercise their own religious beliefs; religious freedom cannot mean that an individual or a corporation gets to impose their religious beliefs on their employees." 

The Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in particular has taken an active role in criticizing the contraceptive coverage mandate in Obamacare. But this isn't the first time nuns have shown independence on an issue. In 2012, a Vatican group rebuked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for espousing "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." 

That prompted one commentator to reach for the b-word in a rather different context. "Women are not capable, in the Vatican’s mind, of governing others or even themselves," wrote Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books. "Is it any wonder so many nuns have left the orders or avoided joining them? Who wants to be bullied?"

Supporters of the contraceptive coverage provisions plan to rally outside the Court on March 25, the day oral arguments are heard in the Hobby Lobby case.