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

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."