“By the way, I have never sued the nun — any nuns. I have taken on the federal government, but I’ve never sued any affiliation of nuns. And my actions have always been directed at the federal agencies, because they have been trying to do things that are contrary to the law in California.”
— Becerra, at the confirmation hearing
Becerra was often in court with former president Donald Trump’s administration, filing numerous lawsuits as attorney general of California that won the backing of other Democratic states.
Now he’s up for the top health position in President Biden’s Cabinet, and Republican senators want to know why he supposedly sued a group of nuns back in the day.
In hearings on Becerra’s nomination to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Thune and others brought up a case involving California, contraceptives and a group of Catholic nuns.
It’s misleading to say Becerra sued the nuns. The California attorney general has not filed lawsuits or brought enforcement actions against the Little Sisters of the Poor, a charity run by Catholic nuns.
The two sides are in court for a different reason. California is suing the federal government, challenging a Trump administration policy that exempts some employers from providing contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters of the Poor voluntarily joined that case, taking the Trump administration’s position that the exemptions were legally valid.
The charitable organization was not sued or legally compelled by the California attorney general’s office to participate in the case. The group decided to join the litigation after it began, and a court granted permission.
But it took a while to unwind what’s happening here, which is why we thought readers might like an explanation.
In May 2017, Trump signed an executive order calling for new regulations to address “conscience-based objections” to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance plans provide contraceptive coverage. The ACA’s “contraceptive mandate” has long been a target of religious and conservative groups, who say it offends religious liberty to require by law that employers provide contraceptives for employees.
In October 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Labor and Treasury departments, came out with new regulations that provided an exemption from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate to entities “with sincerely held religious beliefs objecting to contraceptive or sterilization coverage” or “sincerely held moral convictions concerning contraceptive coverage.”
California, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia sued the three Cabinet agencies and their secretaries, seeking to block Trump’s new rules from taking effect and alleging they were invalid under a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act.
A judge then issued a preliminary injunction, temporarily blocking the rules from taking effect while the case played out in the legal system. After issuing the injunction, the court allowed Little Sisters of the Poor (Jeanne Jugan Residence) and the March for Life Education and Defense Fund to intervene in the case, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Other states and the District of Columbia then joined the litigation. A parallel case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor and Pennsylvania ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled 7 to 2 that the Trump administration’s regulations were legally valid. The court did not rule on a similar case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor and California, though it returned that case to a lower court with instructions to follow the Pennsylvania ruling.