People rally in March outside the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington against the government mandate that would require nearly all employers to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their health plans. Forty-three Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed suit in federal court May 21 to stop three government agencies from implementing the mandate. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Lawsuits seek to stop HHS mandate

By  Nancy Frazier O'Brien, Catholic News Service
  • May 22, 2012

WASHINGTON - Forty-three Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed suit in federal court May 21 to stop three government agencies from implementing a mandate that would require them to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their health plans.

“Through this lawsuit, plaintiffs do not seek to impose their religious beliefs on others,” said one of the suits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana by the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, diocesan Catholic Charities, St. Anne Home and Retirement Community, Franciscan Alliance, University of St. Francis and Our Sunday Visitor.

“They simply ask that the government not impose its values and policies on plaintiffs, in direct violation of their religious beliefs.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, whose archdiocese is among the plaintiffs, said the lawsuits were “a compelling display of the unity of the Church in defense of religious liberty” and “a great show of the diversity of the Church’s ministries that serve the common good and that are jeopardized by the mandate.”

“We have tried negotiations with the administration and legislation with the Congress — and we’ll keep at it — but there’s still no fix,” the cardinal said. “Time is running out and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now.”

Catholic organizations have objected to the contraceptive mandate since it was announced last Aug. 1 by Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unless they are subject to a narrow religious exemption or have a grandfathered health plan, employers will be required to pay for sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, as part of their health coverage as soon as Aug. 1, 2012.

In all, 12 lawsuits were filed simultaneously May 21 in various U.S. district courts around the country. The defendants in each case were Sebelius, Labour Secretary Hilda Solis and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, along with their departments.

Erin Shields, HHS director of communications for health care, told Catholic News Service May 21 that the department cannot comment on pending litigation.

In addition to the archdiocese of New York and diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the dioceses involved are the archdioceses of Washington and St. Louis and the dioceses of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Erie, Pa., Pittsburgh, Dallas, Fort Worth, Texas, Jackson, Miss., Biloxi, Miss., Springfield, Ill., and Joliet, Ill. The Michigan Catholic Conference, which provides medical benefits to more than 1,100 Catholic institutions and approximately 10,000 employees in the state, also is a plaintiff.

Catholic universities joining in the lawsuits included the University of Notre Dame, The Catholic University of America and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, as well as the University of St. Francis in Indiana.

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, said the decision to file the lawsuit “came after much deliberation, discussion and efforts to find a solution acceptable to the various parties.”

“This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives,” he said.

“For if we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions.”

Others filing suit include a Catholic cemeteries association, an agency that serves the deaf, health care and social-services organizations, and Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

Each of the lawsuits uses similar wording to make its case and each asks for a jury trial. Noting that the Founding Fathers agreed “that the mixture of government and religion is destructive to both institutions and divisive to the social fabric upon which the country depends,” the lawsuits contend that the U.S. Constitution and federal law “stand as bulwarks against oppressive government actions even if supported by a majority of citizens.”

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