Kim Davis wasn’t the only crusader for Christian privilege invited to the State of the Union

State of the Union invites are almost all political. The President, First Lady and members of Congress use them to signal their values and priorities to constituents and journalists alike.

For instance, the empty seat in the First Lady’s guest box — a seat left empty as a tribute to the tens of thousands of Americans killed by guns every year — garnered its fair share of coverage in the media. Almost as much coverage as Congressman Jim Jordan’s decision to let the Family Research Council choose his guests for him — a decision that resulted in Kim Davis sitting in the same room as Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that Davis has spent the last year massively resisting.

But Jordan’s invite of Davis and her lawyer, Matt Staver, via the Family Research Council weren’t the only tickets extended to fundamentalists crusading against the federal government in the name of Christian privilege:

Yep. Paul Ryan invited the Little Sisters of the Poor to the State of the Union.

This invite isn’t as headline-grabbing as Kim Davis’s, but it’s arguably more important in the long run. Like Kim Davis, Little Sisters of the Poor are waging a legal battle against the government in the name of religious freedom that is, at its core, an assertion of Christian privilege. Like Kim Davis, they have little chance of succeeding. Unlike Kim Davis, however, their claims test the boundaries of government regulation on the religious beliefs of people who operate outside of the public sector.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find too many people who agree with Kim Davis that, as a public official, she has a right to practice her faith on the job. The debate over when and how private religious beliefs should exempt one from secular laws, however, is farther from being settled.

That said, Little Sisters of the Poor really shouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. As I wrote in November:

[Hobby Lobby] held that the government could not require closely-held corporations and other organizations with sincerely-held religious beliefs to provide health insurance plans for their employees that include coverage for certain types of birth control. In response, HHS created a short form — literally a half-page — asking companies seeking exemptions from the contraception mandate to simply indicate their religious objection, at which time the government would connect the employees in question with a private health insurance plan providing the coverage free of charge. Since contraception is cost-neutral, no one — not the employer, not the insurance company and not the government — shoulders any additional cost.

Hobby Lobby photo via DangApricot. Pope clothes via Shutterstock (Maxisport / Shutterstock.com)

Hobby Lobby photo via DangApricot. Pope clothes via Shutterstock (Maxisport / Shutterstock.com)

But for Little Sisters, who Pope Francis told to keep fighting the good fight when he visited in September, this isn’t enough. The requirement that they state their objection, rather than being allowed to simply deny their employees health insurance plans other employers are required to provide, is too much for them.

Thus far, nearly every court that has heard their case has ruled that their claim is ridiculous. It doesn’t violate your religious beliefs when the government asks you to declare your religious beliefs so that it can accommodate your religious beliefs.

The Obama administration, through the Affordable Care Act, has decided that health insurance should cover contraception, and that if employers’ religious beliefs prohibit them from providing it, the government can make alternative arrangements. Little Sisters of the Poor is insisting that by being at all involved in the process by which their employees wind up with a health insurance plan that covers contraception — even if that involvement is a statement of objection — they would be endorsing behavior that they consider to be a mortal sin. They’ve left no room to accommodate the government’s requirement that, some way, somehow, their employees wind up with a health insurance plan that covers what the administration wants to cover.

This is actually a much broader demand than the one Kim Davis wound up making. Davis simply wanted the process by which marriage licenses were issued to be amended such that she would no longer have to be a part of it. Letting her have her way, which Governor Matt Bevin recently did, may set a dangerous precedent, but at least removing her from the marriage license process doesn’t keep any same-sex couples from getting their marriage licenses.

Letting Little Sisters of the Poor have their way, on the other hand, would result in the employees of religious organizations — employees who may not share their employers’ religious beliefs — being denied access to health insurance coverage that the administration has decided should be part of every health insurance plan. All because this Christian group has decided, on bogus scientific and theological grounds, that IUDs count as abortions.

Little Sisters of the Poor is demanding that their religious beliefs be accommodated to the point at which secular public policy outcomes are changed for the worse. This is a demand that no religious group other than conservative Christians can make with any hope of being taken seriously. This being the case, they aren’t demanding their freedom to practice their faith; they’re asserting their privilege to impose it on others.

Last night, Paul Ryan gave that privilege his emphatic endorsement.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Butch1

    I’ve never heard so many lies come out of this president in one hour in a long time. I thought his “pep-talk” fell flat to anyone who had a brain.

  • Ag Penn

    These nuns remind me of the Magdalene Sisters.

  • Don Chandler

    ‘Religious privilege’ is a good term. It’s a concept that allows people to do anything in the name of religion. They need no rationale. The Bundy boy said god told him to take over that building in Oregon. So his actions were justified by ‘religious privilege’–in his mind. He also has a small business loan from the government. And maybe he wants a little land in Oregon, compliments of the government, to expand his divine kingdom– based on some kind of mormon approach. It use to be that leaders would invoke religion to support their military actions. Now it’s any individual with a very special and selfish cause merely claiming ‘religious privilege’ to do anything they want. “On whose authority are you denying me my legal right?” Answer, “On God’s authority!” –the kim davis fart in a crowded county clerk office in Kentucky. That must have been one stinky room at the SOTU.

  • nicho

    Andy Borowitz says Kim Davis being there was appropriate because she fits right in with all the members of Congress who have refused to do their jobs. Bazinga!

  • They have a cutsie name, but the Little Sisters of the Poor won’t be satisfied until they have total dominion over the personal lives of anyone who works for them.

    But seriously, Nicho is right: The SOTU address has become a frickin’ circus, more absurd with each passing year. I have never heard a more empty statement than “The state of our union is strong” — yet every single president says that line, no matter what the situation is.

    No, it’s not ‘strong.’ America is most definitely in big trouble. On the right, we have armed insurrectionists. We have corporations and billionaires openly buying elections now. Our government is being run by men (and a few women) who are being elected by an ever shrinking minority of increasingly radicalized voters. There are f*cking earthquakes daily now in the U.S. midwest and the climate catastrophe is well underway. And economically, the chasm between the ultra-rich and everyone else has never been wider.

  • nicho

    The SOTU is basically political theater and, like our political system, is becoming more and more absurd each time it’s staged. I suppose it’s fun — if you appreciate that kind of drama — but to take it seriously in any way is just stupid.

  • Ol’ Hippy

    I can just see these people pushing their misguided agendas , trying to take hold of the country with more and more legislation. We all need to take a stand now against this privileged status they are demanding. This has to end with this important election. I emphatically urge each and every one to VOTE this fall, our civil freedoms demand it. These religious organizations privilege CAN end if you go vote!!

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