Let's Not Bring The Pope Into The Next Hobby Lobby Controversy

The pontiff this week visited a group of nuns who sued over an Obamacare rule.
Pope Francis greets nuns at the Little Sisters of the Poor convent in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015.
Pope Francis greets nuns at the Little Sisters of the Poor convent in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015.

Pope Francis made an unscheduled visit Wednesday to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who are petitioning the Supreme Court to take a case that pits religious liberty against the Affordable Care Act and women's health.

The Little Sisters lawsuit could be as big and as controversial as last year's Hobby Lobby decision.  

But several news reports on the pope's visit, including one from the Vatican, seem to misapprehend the nature of the case. It's not even clear whether the pontiff made the stop with any true understanding of the lawsuit.  

A Vatican spokesman told reporters Wednesday that the pope's brief visit with the nuns was meant as a "sign of support for them" in their legal fight.

But Sister Constance Veit, the communications director for the Little Sisters, said Pope Francis did not bring up the lawsuit during his visit, according to the Catholic Herald.

Veit did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post, but she did tell NBC News, "When he came to speak to us, he made it clear he wanted to speak to and meet with the sisters, not the elderly people we care for."

"It just gave us a lot of moral support and confirmed we are on the right track with the lawsuit as far as the church is concerned while we wait to see if the Supreme Court will take the case," she continued. "It gave us a lot of energy and everyone was very fortified. It was a spiritual shot in the arm."

Melinda Skea, a spokeswoman for the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, which represents the Little Sisters in court and helped win the Hobby Lobby case, deferred to the Vatican on the reason for the pope's visit.

The Becket Fund is nevertheless using the pope's meet-and-greet with the nuns to draw media attention to the case. Much to the nuns' benefit, that attention has been charitably misleading.

"The government is trying to force the religious community to comply with a contraception mandate in the law, which violates Catholic religious beliefs," read a report from Vatican Radio posted on an official Vatican website.

American media have been just as confused. 

"Pope meets with nuns fighting Obamacare," read a CNN headline, while the Los Angeles Times said the Little Sisters "have been fighting a federal insurance requirement to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees." Reuters reported that a federal court essentially ordered the Roman Catholic nuns to "comply with a contraception mandate in the law."

Not exactly.

The nuns are actually challenging an "accommodation" under Obamacare that allows them to opt out of the law's contraceptive mandate.

Under the mandate, employers are generally required to provide birth control and other related services at no cost to their female workers. The opt-out regulation is a way to meet certain religious objectors in the middle. All those employers have to do is sign a form noting their objections, after which the process is out of their hands. It then becomes the job of the federal government and the insurers to figure out how to provide the contraceptive coverage to the employees.

The nuns and other religious nonprofits say some of the covered methods of birth control violate their religious beliefs. So they have challenged the form itself, arguing that the very act of filling it out amounts to a "substantial burden" on their faith because it makes them complicit in providing those contraceptives.

Courts across the country have roundly rejected that argument and held that the form is not a burden on religion. The Little Sisters themselves lost before a federal appeals court in July. But a different appeals court in another lawsuit ruled the other way last week, raising the odds that the Supreme Court may review one of these cases. The justices could decide to take the Little Sisters challenge or any of the related cases as early as next week. 

So far, the pope has not shared his personal views on the filling out of forms. But disputes that set religious freedom against other equally important rights are not decided in church or in the press. They're decided in court.

This story has been updated to include Veit's comments to NBC News.