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What would Jefferson Say to the Little Sisters of the Poor?

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Would Thomas Jefferson have anything to say about Americans suing the government in order to defend their first amendment rights? Kathryn Hickok, of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Ore., thinks so. She wondered what Jefferson may have said to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s about their ongoing legal battle with the Obama Administration. In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services required employers to cover contraceptives and abortifacients or pay costly fines. Although this mandate does have exemptions for some, that does not include the Little Sisters of the Poor. For more background, see PowerBlog articles on both the HHS Mandate and the Little Sisters’ lawsuit.

In 1804, a nun from New Orleans was concerned that, after the Louisiana purchase, the government may interfere with her religious community’s ministries or might even seize their property. Jefferson assured her:

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution….The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a 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.

Hickok notes the similarities between the concerns this nun had  and the fight the Little Sisters have today:

Like the Ursuline nuns of Jefferson’s time, the Little Sisters of the Poor seek to secure their right to live out their faith through service to those in need. Catholic sisters do not give up their religious freedom when they establish nursing homes―or any other ministry. We can imagine what Thomas Jefferson might think of American women having to sue the Obama Administration to defend their First Amendment rights. But can we doubt he would be dismayed by how intrusive and coercive the federal government has become since the day he wrote so cordially to a group of French nuns about the safeguards of the American Constitution?

Jefferson guaranteed that the nuns of 1804 had every right to carry our their ministry, “So why don’t Catholic sisters today even qualify for a religious exemption?” Read ‘What would Jefferson Say to the Little Sisters of the Poor?’.

 

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Sarah Stanley

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