Pope Francis in Jerusalem
Pope Francis in JerusalemFlash 90

Pope Francis made a “brief but symbolic” visit to Little Sisters of the Poor, a convent of nuns that has led the legal fight against ObamaCare’s birth control mandate, a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday night.

“This is a sign, obviously, of support for them,” Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters.

The pope’s support formarks a major split from the Obama administration, whose birth control mandate, as legislated in the Affordable Care Act, has been one of its most divisive actions.

The Roman Catholic nuns, who reside near Catholic University, have been battling the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate for over two years, in a case that is headed for the Supreme Court.

The nuns are suing the Obama administration over a provision of the Act that the administration has interpreted as requiring them to purchase health insurance with birth control coverage.

While the sisters can opt out of the rule by writing to the Department of Health and Human Services and specifically stating their objections on religious grounds, their lawsuit argues that requiring that paperwork infringes on their religious freedom. They are suing under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a Clinton-era law that prohibits the government from placing a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion.

An appeals court sided with the government in August, but an unusual dissent by five judges this month called that decision “clearly and gravely wrong – on an issue that has little to do with contraception and a great deal to do with religious liberty.”

“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.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told USA Today that the court case represents a broad understanding of freedom of religion, as held by the Catholic church.

“Freedom of religion also means the ability to live out your religion,” he said. “The last thing the Little Sisters of the Poor want to do is sue somebody. They want to serve the poor and the elderly, and do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs. We feel strongly about that. It’s a freedom not of special privilege, it’s a freedom to serve others, and serve others in such a way that does not compromise the integrity of our beliefs.”