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The plaintiffs in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell are perhaps the most sympathetic petitioners to ever stand before the court — women who have abandoned themselves entirely to care for the elderly indigent.

Yet, for all the nuns’ sincerity and integrity, they have been driven to seek shelter from the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS threatens devastating fines if the Little Sisters do not provide a full range of contraceptives through their health plan, including some that cause abortions. The HHS did exempt some nonprofit religious employers, acknowledging their deep religious convictions.

But it did not exempt these nuns or their co-petitioners, including religious colleges and a theological seminary.

Instead of an exemption, HHS offered an “accommodation.” Bureaucrats asked the Little Sisters to sign a document authorizing their insurer to provide the contraceptives at no cost to the nuns. The nuns would not be paying for it, but the plans they offer their employees would include the drugs. Under this arrangement, the Sisters would be facilitating access to contraceptives and abortifacients through their own plans, something that runs counter to their commitment to respect life from conception until natural death.

Imagine an elementary school whose administration is sincerely concerned for the physical health of the students it educates. In the cafeteria are vending machines that sell water and pure fruit juice — but not soda. The government writes a regulation demanding the sale of pop in school vending machines. When the school objects, the government offers to put the sodas in the machines for “free.” But the school is not satisfied. Its objection isn’t simply about paying for the soda. The school objects to facilitating access to the drinks. They cannot in good conscience offer the product to the students.

The nuns have petitioned the court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing they should not have to set aside their sincere religious beliefs to serve the poor. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, says that the government must have a compelling interest to interfere with an American’s sincere beliefs. If the interest is compelling, the government must find the least restrictive means.

In this case, the government already provides free contraception, so there is no need to entangle the faithful nuns. The government says it has a good reason for hijacking the Little Sisters’ health plan, but it has already exempted the employers of tens of millions of employees from the contraceptive mandate entirely — some for religious reasons and some just for administrative convenience.

Why won’t it exempt the nuns?

There is some reason to think that the justices will support the Sisters. Besides all the conscience protections that are elegantly woven into the fabric of our Constitution and expanded in our laws, there is the lovely American tradition of freedom of conscience.

The United States is a place where people of widely differing beliefs have been able to live and work in peace and prosperity, each contributing to our richly diverse society. The Little Sisters’ contribution is spectacular. We don’t all have to share their sincere belief in the dignity of human life to treat their convictions with the respect they deserve.

Grazie Pozo Christie serves on the advisory board for the Catholic Association.

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