Notre Dame files legal challenge to HHS mandate

University of Notre Dame Credit Kahunapule Michael Johnson CC BY NC SA 20 CNA US Catholic News 5 21 12 The University of Notre Dame's administration building and Sacred Heart Basilica. | Kahunapule Michael Johnson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The University of Notre Dame filed its own lawsuit against the HHS mandate on May 21, with its president warning that the mandate’s religious freedom violations could mean “the end of genuinely religious organizations” if they are allowed to stand.

“We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others; we simply ask that the government not impose its values on the university when those values conflict with our religious teachings,” University of Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., said in a May 21 letter.

The lawsuit, filed against leaders of the Obama administration in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, denies that the government has the right to “force the University of Notre Dame to violate its own conscience by making it provide, pay for, and/or facilitate those services to others, contrary to its sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“This lawsuit is about one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference,” it said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against Department of Health and Human Services rules requiring health plans to cover sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-causing drugs, as “preventive care” for women. The mandate also requires health plans to pay for education and counseling related to those procedures and drugs.

Although the mandate has a religious exemption, it would not apply to many Catholic universities, health systems, and charities even though Catholics consider the use of these procedures and drugs to be sinful.

The exemption applies only to organizations with a primarily religious purpose which serve and employ mainly people of its own religion.

The Obama administration has proposed an accommodation to require insurance companies, rather than employers, to provide this coverage but many religious leaders say this is still morally unacceptable.

Notre Dame’s lawsuit said the mandate applies to the university’s health plans for both its employees and its students.

At least 43 Catholic dioceses and organizations filed suit against the Obama administration May 21. Notre Dame filed its lawsuit separately from the others.

The university’s lawsuit charged that the mandate and its “narrow exemption” for religious employers, is “irreconcilable” with the First Amendment, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and other laws.

“The government has not shown any compelling need to force Notre Dame to provide, pay for, and/or facilitate access to these objectionable services, or for requiring Notre Dame to submit to an intrusive governmental examination of its religious missions,” it said.

The lawsuit charges that the federal regulations substantially burden religious freedom, cause “excessive entanglement” between religion and government, and discriminate between different types of religious entities based on their religious beliefs or practices.

It also characterizes the mandate as an example of unconstitutional “compelled speech” for forcing an organization to use its money to support a viewpoint that conflicts with its religious beliefs.

Fr. Jenkins said that the lawsuit is about “the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission.”

He also questioned the Obama administration’s use of the religious exemption. He warned that if the university concedes the government’s right to decide which organizations are sufficiently religious to have a religious freedom exemption “then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions.”

Allowing one presidential administration to “override” the university’s religious purpose will allow another administration to do the same for another different set of policies, he predicted.

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This process will result in religious organizations becoming “mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringement.”

“If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name,” Fr. Jenkins said.

The lawsuit echoed Fr. Jenkins’ concerns.

“If the government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the government’s power,” it said.

Fr. Jenkins maintained that the lawsuit is not about “preventing women from having access to contraception” or about preventing the government from providing such services. He said that many Notre Dame Catholic faculty, staff and students, Catholic and non-Catholic, have made “conscientious decisions” to use contraceptives.

“As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs,” he said.

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