Ave Maria University challenges HHS mandate in federal court

Ave Maria University has filed a lawsuit seeking relief from the federal rule forcing it to fund contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs in employee health care plans.

“It is a sad day when an American citizen or organization has no choice but to sue its own government in order to exercise religious liberty rights guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution,” said Ave Maria President Jim Towey, speaking to reporters on a Feb. 21 conference call.

“As an American Catholic, I am in disbelief that I have to choose between being a good Catholic and a good citizen,” said Towey, who previously served as legal counsel to Mother Teresa and led the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006.

“I will not, and the university will not, accept this false choice. The federal government has no right to coerce the university into funding contraceptive services that include abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, in the health plan we offer our employees.”

On Feb. 21, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the suit on behalf of Ave Maria in U.S. District Court, against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

It is the Becket Fund's fourth lawsuit against the HHS contraception mandate, joining similar challenges by Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, and the Eternal Word Television Network.

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced a set of planned changes to the HHS rule governing religious employers' coverage of “preventive services.”

Originally, the mandate forced employers to offer contraception and sterilization explicitly in their health plans. The promised revision shifted the burden to insurance companies, requiring them to cover the same services without a co-pay in their contracts with religious employers.

Towey described the move as a “sleight of hand maneuver” that “fooled no one.”

“Ave Maria University pays 95 percent of the cost of the health plan we offer our employees,” he explained. “Under the federal mandate Ave Maria University would be paying for these drugs if we complied with the law. So we will not.”

“We are prepared to discontinue our health plan and pay the $2,000 per employee, per year fine rather than comply with an unjust, immoral mandate in violation of our rights of conscience.”

Becket Fund Senior Counsel Kyle Duncan noted that the promised change to the mandate had not actually been confirmed as law.

The original version of the law, Duncan told reporters, “actually became final without change” on Feb. 10.

The administration's “talk of a compromise and accommodation” is only “a promise, in the future …  to maybe engage in some additional rule-making.”

Towey, who has criticized the Obama White House's approach to religious groups in the past, said it was “apparent that this administration does not want to strike a balance between its zeal to implement a new social policy, and the rights of religiously-affiliated organizations like Ave Maria.”

He made it clear that the issue at hand was not about women's access to contraception, but about the morality of forcing Catholic institutions to make insurance contracts under which it will be provided despite their objections.

“Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action, is a perilous precedent,” the university president said.

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“I hope all of my colleagues in academia, including Catholic higher education, awaken to this danger.”

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