Multiple Catholic dioceses and groups sue for relief from government’s oppressive contraception mandate

Today, as Scott Johnson noted in an earlier post, multiple Catholic Dioceses and organizations filed lawsuits in federal courts around the country challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring religious organizations to provide coverage in their health care plans for drugs (contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs) and procedures (sterilization) that are in direct conflict with their religious beliefs. Twelve Archdioceses or Dioceses are participating, each in a different lawsuit.

All told, 43 separate Catholic organizations are participating as plaintiffs in the 12 lawsuits. They include Notre Dame University, The Catholic University of America, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the University of St. Francis in Indiana, as well as the Michigan Catholic Conference, which provides medical benefits to more than 1,100 Catholic institutions and approximately 10,000 employees. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis are named as defendants.

As Scott explained, the suits stem from HHS’s narrow new definition of what constitutes a religious organization. Under that definition, the only organizations exempt as “religious organizations” from the requirements imposed by the government on what must be provided in an employer’s health care plan are those religious institutions that primarily serve and employ individuals of their own faith. Any other religious organizations, including Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and charities that serve all individuals regardless of their faith, do not themselves qualify as religious for purposes of the exemption. Consequently, the HHS mandate forces them to provide coverage for drugs and procedures even if they believe that the drugs and procedures are morally wrong and in direct violation of their Catholic beliefs.

As Jane Belford, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, stated:

There is no way out of the dilemma the mandate forces upon us. Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, and social service ministries employ and serve millions of people in this country and do so without regard to their religious beliefs. Under the government’s new rules, religious organizations will face an impossible choice.

Serving our neighbor is part of our baptismal calling. We do what we do because we are Catholic, not because those we serve are. We have always asked: Are you hungry? Are you sick? Now, we will be forced to also ask: Are you Catholic? This is wrong. Our mission is to serve the needs of our neighbors regardless of their faith or their beliefs

The 12 lawsuits are identically worded. Each alleges that the HHS mandate “unconstitutionally authorizes the federal government to determine which organizations are sufficiently ‘religious’ to warrant an exemption from the requirement” being imposed. According to the plaintiffs, this violates “the religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal laws.”

The plaintiffs in each action are represented by the law firm of Jones Day. Michael Carvin of Jones Day was one of the attorneys who did such a fine job of arguing to the Supreme Court that the individual mandate contained in Obamacare is unconstitutional.

A few things stand out about today’s suits. First, they are not being brought by a few “outlier” Catholic groups. As noted, there are 43 plaintiffs, including 12 Archdioceses or Dioceses. In addition to the Archdiocese of Washington, those of New York and St. Louis are also plaintiffs.

Second, the plaintiffs could have waited another month or so to file their suit. By then, the issue raised might be moot. One plausible outcome of the challenge to the individual mandate is that Obamacare will fall in its entirety under a ruling that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that without the mandate, the rest of Obamacare collapses due to non-severability.

But the plaintiffs didn’t wait. I’m not privy to the reason. However, the decision to sue now might well reflect a very deep sense of outrage at the Obama administration’s disregard for the Catholic conscience.

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