Pope Francis on his historic visit to the U.S. made a “brief but symbolic” visit to a convent of nuns that has led the legal fight against ObamaCare’s birth control mandate, according to a Vatican spokesman.
“This is a sign, obviously, of support for them,” Father Federico Lombardi told reporters Wednesday night.
The pope’s support for Little Sisters of the Poor marks a major split from the Obama administration, which has for years fought off legal challenges to its signature healthcare law. Its birth control mandate has been one of the most divisive, and a challenge from Little Sisters of the Poor could land in the Supreme Court.
The Roman Catholic nuns, who reside near Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University, have spent two years embroiled in a legal battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department ruled that the nuns had to comply with the rule because its requirements did not impose a “substantial burden” on their right to practice their religion.
Religious groups can “opt out” of the rule by writing to the Department of Health and Human Services and specifically stating their objections on religious grounds.
The group was granted a short-term shelter from the mandate in August by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, allowing time for them to petition the Supreme Court.
“The Holy Father spoke to each of us individually, from the youngest postulant to our centenarian, and then he spoke to all [of] us about the importance of our ministry to the elderly. We were deeply moved by his encouraging words,” Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The topic of birth control — as well as abortion — were strikingly absent from the pope’s speech on Thursday.
While Francis stressed a “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” he made no mention of the raging political battle over the definition of conception that has brought Congress to the brink of a shutdown this month.
Some Republicans had hoped that the pope would weigh in, particularly on the controversy over Planned Parenthood and its alleged misuse of fetal tissue donations.
Instead of abortion, Francis centered his political advocacy on addressing the world’s immigration and migrant crisis, as well as combating global warming.