Twelve veiled nuns from the ultraconservative Little Sisters of the Poor (LSOP) were conspicuously assembled around a preening man in three-piece suit in front of the United States Supreme Court last month. Photos of these shrewdly selected nun plaintiffs, as calculated by lawyers from the right wing Becket Fund who recruited them, were plastered across the front pages of newspapers all over the country as the virtuous face of Zubick v. Burwell, an anti-Obamacare case argued that morning before the Court. As a lawyer the contrived and unfounded legal argument premised on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act offends me. As a female lawyer who has struggled to care for four children while practicing law, this male organized onslaught against women’s control over their own fertility is especially obnoxious. As a Catholic woman the Church’s shameless exploitation of women makes my blood boil. These religious litigants are not, in my experience, representative of the Catholic sisters who taught millions of American Catholic children.
The articulated goal of the case is to shield employers like the LSOP from liability for violation of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraception be covered as part of women’s health care insurance. The lawsuit asserts that a mere signature on a government-supplied exemption form violates their “sincerely held religious beliefs” against birth control and abortion, because it would trigger coverage from other sources. Why on earth would an obscure and small group of elderly nuns who provide care for the elderly launch this major lawsuit? It doesn’t take me long to figure that out.
Who better than a group of veiled virgins to fight on the front lines in the Church’s war against modern Jezebels? The American Catholic Bishops in all their finery, the real parties in interest, wouldn’t cut nearly as sympathetic a figure as the anachronistic nuns. So their lawyers trotted out the veiled nuns as a human shield for the bishops.
Several years earlier, the heads of many orders of nuns, representing 59,000 nuns around the country, had signed a letter to Congress urging passage of Obamacare as a genuinely “pro-life” measure because it provided $250 million in health care for pregnant women and children. The American Catholic Bishops who opposed the bill were furious. In Zubick v. Burwell, parading veiled nuns as plaintiffs, the bishops used an obvious public relations ploy to visually undermine the vast majority of nuns who supported Obamacare.
The nuns I admired growing up were part of a long line of feminists who were involved in the world and dedicated to important work. Some of them became the “nuns on the bus,” who sought to help the poor and the sick. Others headed NGOs at the United Nations. Several went to prison for trespassing on federal property to protest nuclear armaments. Nuns have been unsung activists who figure significantly in our nation’s history and have paid a price.
In 2008, prompted by two archconservative American cardinals, who themselves were implicated in the pedophilia scandal roiling dioceses all over the country, the Vatican under Pope Benedict, subjected, the Leadership Council of Women Religious to a humiliating and intrusive investigation for exhibiting “a certain feminist spirit.” The nuns had brought down the wrath of the Church because they had prioritized social service to the poor and oppressed over proselytizing against homosexuality and abortion.
The investigation was shut down a few years after the investiture of Pope Francis. A photo memorializing the occasion that graced newspapers across the country is in striking contrast to the recent one in front of the Supreme Court. Nuns representing the Leadership Council of Women Religious, four smiling elderly women, professionally dressed and sporting gray hair, sat across the desk from Pope Francis in his study in the Vatican. The pope was smiling too as he thanked the nuns for their service.
The exploitation and subjugation of women by the Church, as evidenced in the Zubick v. Burwell case, is nothing new. My childhood recognition of this institutional misogyny ultimately led me to my life in the law, where I pursued civil rights cases as part of my spiritual journey, which might be called “Eat, Pray, Litigate.” And it was a feminist nun, Sister Mary Linus, who sent me on my way.