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Thomas Jefferson, Catholic Sisters And Obamacare

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It’s easy to read that headline and think, “Wha…?” What in the world do Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, Catholic Sisters and our present day health laws have to do with each other? I’m glad you asked.

More than 200 years ago, the Ursuline Sisters of France were fleeing the French Revolution and seeking a new home in New Orleans. They planned to open schools, hospitals and orphanages, but wanted to make sure that the U.S. government, now in control of New Orleans, would not meddle in their plans – separation of church and state, you see. They wrote to President Thomas Jefferson with their concerns; Jefferson’s response?

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana.

The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.

Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under.

Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

(By the way, you can see Jefferson’s original letter – kept in the Ursuline Museum – here.)

Why is  this important? As blogger Joanne McPortland pointed out yesterday, some people (okay, columnist Jamie Stiehm at U.S. News) are trying to say that the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are currently seeking an exemption from the HHS mandate, are trying to finagle their way around the separation of church and state. Stiehm rolls out a diatribe against Justice Sotomayor, saying she “is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence.” Why? Because Sotomayor has temporarily blocked the Little Sisters of the Poor from having to comply with the HHS mandate, which would force the Sisters to offer contraceptives and abortion coverage to their employees. Stiehm is not happy with Sotomayor:

Sotomayor’s blow brings us to confront an uncomfortable reality. More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions. Especially if “you” are female. This is not true of all Catholics – just look at House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. But right now, the climate is so cold when it comes to defending our settled legal ground that Sotomayor’s stay is tantamount to selling out the sisterhood. And sisterhood is not as powerful as it used to be, ladies.

Okay, so the “sisterhood” (the feminists, not the “trouble-making” Catholic ones) have been sold out. But then Stiehm wants to make it clear that all of this has been worked out already, by none other than…Thomas Jefferson, since he’s the one who came up with the whole “separation of church and state” idea:

Thomas Jefferson, the principal champion of the separation between state and church, was thinking particularly of pernicious Rome in his writings. He deeply distrusted the narrowness of Vatican hegemony.

You can disagree with Stiehm’s view of the Little Sisters of the Poor, her view about Obamacare and that of the “sisterhood” of women. But she’s flat-out wrong when it comes to Jefferson. And he himself proves that in the letter above. HotAir’s Ed Morrissey:

…using Jefferson as an argument for federal intervention in just about anything reveals a much deeper ignorance of Jefferson, the political winds of the era, and which side of the political divide Jefferson ended up representing. The effort to replace the Articles of Confederation produced two competing camps, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the latter of which strongly opposed a strong national government that could impose dictates on the states and on individuals. While Jefferson may not have been explicitly a member of that movement, he certainly sympathized with them, which is why we have a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. When the Anti-Federalists lost the argument, they ended up migrating into Jefferson’s political party, the Democratic Republican Party, which was the forerunner of today’s Democratic Party.

Arguing that Jefferson would cheer federal dictates on the choices of health insurance for nuns is therefore either high ignorance or deliberate obtuseness.

Unlike Stiehm, I hesitate to speak on behalf of Thomas Jefferson. So I’ll just repeat what he said, “The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.” Perhaps Justice Sotomayor knows that these words apply not only to the Ursuline Sisters, but the “trouble-making” Little Sisters of the Poor as well.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Simple Man

    Wow, thanks, great response to the Stiehm article. Scary when revisionist history is used as a tool to further oppression like this.

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  • NR

    A few problems with this:

    1). Birth control (or fertility control…I refuse to use that term for similar reasons as G.K. Chesterton cites in his essay “On Birth Control”) is not a fundamental right given to us by our Bill of Rights in the same way that freedom of religion is. Thus, to place the “right” to birth control ahead of the “right” to practice one’s religion is not accurate within the context of American history.

    2). BECAUSE birth control, and the decision on whether or not to use it, or when to use it, is fundamentally an individual decision (as you state), there is no grounds for asking somebody else to pay for it. Another person’s use of birth control only becomes my business when I am the one paying for it. If birth control is fundamentally an individual decision, that it is also fundamentally an individual responsibility, not a communal responsibility. Thus, neither this group of nuns, nor any employer, has the responsibility to pay for birth control. And if you force them to, then birth control becomes fundamentally a communal decision. So, if you want birth control to remain a fundamentally individual decision, then it must remain a fundamentally individual responsibility. You can’t have it both ways (i.e. individual decision, communal responsibility).

    3). “…but it does not have the right to set standards which interfere with individual rights.” OK, fine. But what individual right does this infringe upon? None. Anybody can purchase and use contraception. And it’s not expensive. Even the most expensive contraceptives cost about $600/year, or about $1.65/day, which accounts for between 1-3% of what the average American spends on a daily basis. This is affordable even for somebody making minimum wage. Since not providing contraception coverage does not pose an undo financial burden to anybody, then there is no way that this can be twisted into saying that it is interfering with individual rights to contraceptives. People are still able to buy them (which, again, if this is an individual decision is also an individual responsibility) without any substantial burden. It doesn’t interfere with anybody’s individual rights, except for the rights of those individuals forced to purchase contraception against their conscience. And those rights are protected by the Bill of Rights.

    4). Do some more research on your fiscal conservatism…particularly historical research. Limiting children and lowering the fertility rate has never resulted in greater prosperity. Quite the opposite actually.

    • Brian Sellers

      Great response. How one can consider themselves a “social libertarian” and support any type of government mandated healthcare is perplexing.

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