Catholic groups file suit in DC court against HHS mandate
HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius listens as President Obama announces the contraceptive mandate, Jan. 12, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius listens as President Obama announces the contraceptive mandate, Jan. 12, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
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.- Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., and Thomas Aquinas College, have filed a suit against the Obama administration, asking for a reprieve from the contraception mandate on religious liberty grounds.

“The HHS contraceptive mandate presents a challenge to a Catholic institution such as Thomas Aquinas College that seeks to uphold both the civil law and the teachings of the Church,” Michael McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College, told CNA Oct. 23.

“The mandate puts those duties into direct conflict, requiring that we take action to protect the College’s Catholic identity and  preserve its financial stability, as the penalties for non-compliance are substantial.”

Thomas Aquinas College is located in Santa Paula, Calif., and is filing with the D.C. district court rather than in California’s 9th district for “prudential reasons,” the college explained in an Oct. 7 press release.

Organizations and persons from the Archdiocese of Washington, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, an assortment of schools, Catholic Charities Victory Housing, the Catholic Information Center, and the Catholic University of America, as well as Thomas Aquinas College, submitted their formal complaint against the HHS mandate to the D.C. district court Sept. 20, and asked for a preliminary injunction, or reprieve from the mandate’s consequences, on Sept. 24.

This is the second time the Archdiocese has filed suit against the HHS mandate. The first lawsuit was filed in May 2012, but not allowed to proceed when the federal district court granted the government’s request to throw out the case because of the then-“ongoing rulemaking process” of the mandate.

The mandate was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Affordable Care Act and requires employers to provide and pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs and procedures in employee health insurance plans, even if doing so violates the employer's conscience or religious beliefs.

 In June 2013, the government finalized an exemption from the mandate for certain religious organizations, however, the exemption only applies to houses of worship, and not religious non-profit ministries, schools, hospitals or charities, nor does it apply to for-profit organizations run by religious persons.

This distinction, the organizations’ lawsuit says, “seeks to divide the Catholic Church, artificially separating its ‘houses of worship’ from its ministries.”

Additionally, the “shell game” the exemption presents “does not address Plaintiffs’ fundamental religious objection to improperly facilitating access to the objectionable products and services,” the lawsuit explains.

“As before, Plaintiffs are coerced, through threats of crippling fines and other pressure, into facilitating access to contraception, abortion-inducing products, sterilization, and related counseling for their employees, contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The government’s reluctance to create an exemption for religious institutions or find a less restrictive means of providing the products and procedures required by the mandate “establishes that the Mandate was part of a conscious political strategy to marginalize and delegitimize” Catholic and other “religious views on contraception by holding them up for ridicule on the national stage,” the organizations claim in their request for a reprieve from the law.

They explain that HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius has mocked the opposition to contraception and abortion-causing drugs at a a NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser, and plaintiffs argue that the recommendation to define contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs as a “preventative service” required by federal law revealed the committee members' “subjective determinations filtered through a lens of advocacy.”

In addition, the mandate is based upon a California law “whose chief legislative sponsor made clear that its purpose was to strike a blow against Catholic religious authorities” and coerce Catholic officials into accepting contraceptives' use.

The organizations asked that they receive protection from the targeted law and its consequences because the cause of religious freedom outweighs the harm that could be done to the government while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.

“The Government has not mandated contraceptive coverage for over two centuries, and there is no urgent need to enforce the Mandate immediately against Catholic groups before its legality can be adjudicated,” the memorandum stated.

Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, told CNA Oct. 23 that “our lawsuit is about one of America's most cherished freedoms – freedom to practice one's religion without government interference … the problem here is that the government is requiring Catholic entities to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

She emphasized that while the archdiocese itself is exempt from the mandate, “our affiliated ministries” which are all “expressions of our faith and … integral to the practice of our faith because they have to do with how we live out our faith through ministries of education, health care, (and) social services,” are not exempted from the mandate's effects.

The mandate distinguishes between “houses of worship” and entities associated with religious houses.

“We dispute that distinction,” Belford said. “The right given to us under the constitution is the right not only to worship, but to freely exercise our faith. The government definition attempts to deny that right.”

“Our Catholic faith teaches us … that we must love God and love our neighbor, and that that involves coming out of our Church into the public square,” she concluded.

“The entities are indisputably religious, they are created by the Archdiocese, they are integral to our mission they are an expression of our mission, and they are required to operate in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic faith.”

Tags: Thomas Aquinas College, HHS mandate

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