Two members of the order of Catholic nuns waging a court battle against President Obama’s signature health-care reform law will attend his final State of the Union address Tuesday as guests of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis).
The Little Sisters of Poor are challenging the health law’s requirement that group insurance plans offer contraceptive coverage at no additional cost. The order runs 30 nursing homes in the United States, and while it has invoked a “conscience clause” in the health law meant to accommodate religious objections, its female employees would remain eligible for free birth control from a third party under a workaround devised by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That workaround is on hold pending the outcome of the litigation.
The nuns are challenging the conscience-clause workaround, and they have the backing of leaders ranging from Ryan to Pope Francis, who met with the sisters during his September trip to Washington. The Supreme Court announced in December it would take up the sisters’ case this year.
Ryan, who is Catholic, announced Monday that Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, the order’s mother provincial, and Sister Constance Veit will sit in the Speaker’s Box during Tuesday’s address. “The Little Sisters of the Poor care for the most vulnerable among us, and they should be free to practice their faith without the threat of government interference or intimidation,” he said in a statement. “The Sisters’ stand in defense of religious liberty – one of our most fundamental rights – is nothing short of courageous, and it’s my privilege to support their cause.”
The sisters are the most sharply political guests that will be seated in the Speaker’s Box on Tuesday. Ryan has also invited a young constituent – 4-year-old Logan Barritt of Milton, Wis. – who, with the help of his parents, used $1.90 from his piggy bank to seed more than $1,300 in donations to fund care packages for military members overseas.
Ryan is also seeking to highlight his anti-poverty agenda just a few days after hosting a poverty-themed presidential candidates forum in South Carolina, inviting several figures involved in faith-based and nonprofit programs for the poor.
They include, according to a list furnished by Ryan’s office, the Rev. Melvin Hargrove, president of Racine Unified School District and the founder of Zoe Outreach Ministries; Bishop Shirley Holloway, founder of House of Help City of Hope in Washington; Pastor Omar Jahwar, founder of Vision Regeneration, a gang intervention group in Dallas; Antong Lucky, founder of We Make Real Music, another Dallas-based gang intervention group; and Joanna Wynn, founder of Walkin’ In My Shoes of Kenosha, Wis. Ryan’s office helped Wynn secure federal disability benefits more than a decade ago and now leads an organization “dedicated to helping young people break the cycle of poverty.”
Also attending at Ryan’s invitation is Robert Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner who has long been celebrated by conservative thinkers for his advocacy for community-based solutions to poverty.
Correction: This article has been changed to state that the Little Sisters of the Poor manages 30 nursing homes inside the United States instead of around the world. Also, the order’s employees are not currently eligible for free contraception due to a court order that will remain in place until the pending litigation is resolved.