When President Barack Obama gives his final State of the Union address tonight, two Little Sisters of the Poor will be in attendance.
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had invited representatives from the religious order -- whose four-year legal battle against the Affordable Healthcare Act's contraceptive mandate will be decided by the Supreme Court this summer -- to sit in the Speaker's Box for the speech. Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire is the congregation's mother provincial and Sr. Constance Veit is their communications director.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty first filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor in September 2013. The sisters have maintained that even though exemptions exist to keep religious groups from paying for the now-federally mandated contraception coverage for all U.S. employees, the act of signing that coverage over to a third-party insurance provider still makes them complicit in providing birth control to women. And that, the sisters say, is a violation of their First Amendment rights.
When Pope Francis was in Washington, D.C., this fall, he made a surprise stop to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor, which Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi later told reporters was a sign of support for the sisters in their legal situation. This perhaps only fueled the flames of debate in what has already become a highly politicized legal case.
Just yesterday, 207 members of Congress, five of them Democrats, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of the sisters, and in September, Republican presidential nominee hopeful Mike Huckabee called Obama a pretend Christian for "going after" the Little Sisters of the Poor. For his part, Ryan has long been vocally opposed to the contraception mandate, saying in 2012, when he was Mitt Romney's running mate, that the mandate would be gone on "day one" of the Romney administration.
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If the Supreme Court rules against the sisters this summer, they could face fines as high as $70 million, according to their lawyers; the Affordable Care Act currently fines employers $1,000 a day for every enrollee in their healthcare plan if they do not comply with contraceptive mandate. But if the sisters win, that could open the door for other types of groups, including for-profit corporations, to argue exemption from the contraceptive mandate.
Tonight, Maguire and Veit will share the Speaker's Box with Logan Barritt, a 4-year-old boy from Ryan's home state who made local headlines when he used change from his piggy bank to send care packages to soldiers.
[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]