Obama Should Ask Dennis Kucinich About Fighting Nuns

The president’s Justice Department could take a cautionary lesson from the Cleveland mayor’s tussle with the Little Sisters.

National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Add to Briefcase
George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 3, 2014, 12:10 p.m.

If Pres­id­ent Obama thinks he has a chance to win a pub­lic re­la­tions battle with the Little Sis­ters of the Poor, per­haps he should talk to Den­nis Ku­cinich. The former con­gress­man is one of the few politi­cians who took on the nuns. It was dur­ing Ku­cinich’s tu­mul­tu­ous one term as may­or of Clev­e­land and Ku­cinich lost. De­cis­ively. Mem­or­ably.

That was in 1978, 36 years be­fore Obama’s Justice De­part­ment got tangled up in this week’s leg­al skir­mish with the 160-year-old or­der of sis­ters de­voted to help­ing the old and needy. The nuns are caught up in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quire­ment that em­ploy­er-offered health plans cov­er con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion drugs, both of which are against Cath­ol­ic teach­ing.

This battle is far more leg­al­ist­ic and much less col­or­ful than the fight Ku­cinich picked soon after his 1977 elec­tion as may­or. He took of­fice in Janu­ary, a no­tori­ously fri­gid month along the shores of Lake Erie. And one of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first acts was to toss the nuns out of City Hall and out in­to the snow. The nuns in that case were not the Little Sis­ters of the Poor; they were the Daugh­ters of St. Paul, a smal­ler or­der also noted for their good works in the com­munity. Oddly, as news stor­ies about Ku­cinich’s ac­tion spread across the coun­try, the epis­ode be­came known as “Ku­cinich versus the Little Sis­ters of the Poor.”

Re­gard­less of the name of the or­der, tak­ing on nuns was not a pub­lic-re­la­tions stroke of geni­us in a city with a large eth­nic Cath­ol­ic pop­u­la­tion. Ku­cinich coun­ted on a leg­al­ist­ic de­fense, with his Law Dir­ect­or ar­guing that if you let nuns so­li­cit in­side City Hall “then you let every­one in, and that in­cludes the Moon­ies.” But Sis­ter Mary Le­onora was giv­en an un­usu­al pub­lic for­um by the city coun­cil to point out how much money the may­or’s policy had cost them. Ku­cinich, who him­self had been taught by nuns, said he wanted to “be on the side of the an­gels.” But he de­cidedly was not on the side of the voters and his clash with the nuns was cited al­most as much as the city’s his­tor­ic in­solv­ency when Ku­cinich was forced in­to a re­call elec­tion.

Clev­e­land’s ex­per­i­ence res­on­ates today be­cause Ku­cinich was al­most cer­tainly cor­rect in his as­sess­ment of the state of the law and the un­ortho­dox nature of let­ting one char­ity so­li­cit funds in a pub­lic build­ing. But that cor­rect­ness was lost against the vivid pic­tures of nuns be­ing tossed out in the Clev­e­land snows at Christ­mas­time.

Today, the Justice De­part­ment is con­vinced that the Cath­ol­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions su­ing to keep the gov­ern­ment from en­for­cing the con­tra­cep­tion man­date in the new health care law do not need an ex­emp­tion from the law. At is­sue for the Su­preme Court is wheth­er to ex­tend a tem­por­ary in­junc­tion gran­ted the church groups by Justice So­nia So­to­may­or. The gov­ern­ment ar­gued that groups like the Little Sis­ters of the Poor can’t ap­peal be­cause the law really doesn’t re­quire them to of­fer con­tra­cep­tion be­cause their in­sur­ance is provided by Chris­ti­an Broth­ers Ser­vices, a church or­gan­iz­a­tion the Justice De­part­ment says is already ex­cused from the law’s man­date.

But con­ser­vat­ive groups are in­tent on cast­ing this as Big Gov­ern­ment against Nuns. What the gov­ern­ment wants the Little Sis­ters of the Poor to do, con­tends the Beck­et Fund for Re­li­gious Liberty, “vi­ol­ates their faith.” The con­ser­vat­ive group ad­ded, “They shouldn’t be forced to di­vert funds from the poor eld­erly and dy­ing people they’ve de­voted their lives to serve.”

On the pos­it­ive side for the gov­ern­ment, though, no nuns have been tossed out in­to the snow this time. But the polit­ic­al les­son is prob­ably still the same, ac­cord­ing to Brent Lar­kin, who was the polit­ic­al writer at the Plain Deal­er when Ku­cinich was may­or. “It wasn’t pretty” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Ku­cinich learned that politi­cians don’t win when they take on nuns.”

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