Pope Francis met with Little Sisters of the Poor on Sept. 23. (Courtesy of The Little Sisters of the Poor)

Pope Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor — nuns who have been in a long battle over a contraception mandate part of Obamacare — at their home across the street from Catholic University after he celebrated Mass on Wednesday. The pope’s visit to the Little Sisters was a sign of support for them in their legal battle, Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates homes for the elderly in cities across the country, has been in a battle with the Obama administration over the law’s requirement that they allow their insurers to offer free contraception coverage to employees. The Becket Fund senior counsel Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the Little Sisters, who spoke with one of the nuns after the meeting, said the pope was at their home for about 15 minutes and shook hands and spoke with each one of them in their chapel.

The pope visited the White House on Wednesday morning calling for strong protections for religious liberty. During his meeting with the sisters, Francis told them how important their ministry is and how ministry to the elderly is often overlooked, Rienzi said. The nun he spoke with said she did not hear the pope bring up the lawsuit during his brief visit.

The Little Sisters first filed a lawsuit in 2013. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the Little Sisters must comply with the contraception requirement. In August, the same circuit granted them a stay to protect them from fines while they petition their case to the Supreme Court, which is expected in October or November to decide whether to take their case.

Francis, who prefers his native Spanish, spoke with the women with a translator by his side.

“The Holy Father spoke to each of us individually, from the youngest postulant to our centenarian, and then he spoke to all [of] us about the importance of our ministry to the elderly. We were deeply moved by his encouraging words,” Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters, said in a statement.


Pope Francis met with Little Sisters of the Poor on Sept. 23. (Courtesy of the Little Sisters of the Poor)

The federal government’s requirement that women receive contraceptive coverage without co-payment has sparked dozens of lawsuits, including in the case of Hobby Lobby, which won its case in front of the Supreme Court. Religious nonprofits, which do not have the same exemption as houses of worship (which do not have to cover contraception), have seen mixed legal results when challenging the mandate.

An “accommodation” in the mandate would let the sisters sign a paper that stated their religious objections to the mandate and allow insurers to take over. However, the Little Sisters argued that a letter would still violate their conscience because it would enable something they see as wrong to take place. Catholic Church teaching forbids the use of artificial contraception, and many religious nonprofits want to be entirely exempted from the mandate, as churches are.

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