Catholic Church Attacks Birth-Control Mandate in Court

The Catholic Church and related universities, charities and health-care groups sued the Obama administration in a bid to overturn a requirement that their health plans cover birth control.

Forty-three Catholic organizations, including the archdioceses of Washington and New York, the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University of America, filed 12 suits yesterday in courts around the country, saying the mandate violates religious freedom and free-speech rights. They asked federal judges to bar the mandate’s application to religious institutions or overturn it altogether.

“The cases are an important effort to vindicate what I think is a foundational freedom for Americans: religious liberty,” said Richard W. Garnett, professor of law and associate dean at Notre Dame Law School, who isn’t involved in the cases. “It’s important that people understand it isn’t about a plot to prevent people from getting access to contraception. There are all kinds of ways the government can find to provide contraception to women who couldn’t qualify for Medicaid.”

The mandate is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. Obama in February offered a compromise that would force health insurers, not religious-affiliated charities, to pay for contraceptives for employees of the institutions. Republican lawmakers vowed to push repeal of the policy.

Law Firm

The law firm Jones Day filed all of the cases, saying in a statement that the rule “requires religious organizations to provide, pay for, and/or facilitate insurance coverage for services that violate their religious beliefs.”

A provision authorizing the federal government to determine which organizations are sufficiently “religious” to warrant an exemption from the requirement is unconstitutional, Jones Day said in the statement.

The institutions don’t qualify for exemptions, Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in an interview.

“The argument is over how the Health and Human Services Department defines religious ministry,” Noguchi said. “The definition is so narrow that our schools, our health care and social services entities wouldn’t qualify.”

Erin Shields, a spokeswoman for HHS, said the department can’t comment on pending litigation.

Suits Across Country

The lawsuits were filed in Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Priests for Life, an anti-abortion clergy group, and seven states sued the U.S. in February seeking to overturn the mandate.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that defends freedom of religion, filed similar cases on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, a liberal arts college founded by Benedictine monks in North Carolina; Colorado Christian University, an evangelical college located outside of Denver; the Catholic news organization Eternal Word Television Network, based in Irondale, Alabama; and Ave Maria University, based in Naples, Florida.

The Washington case is Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Sebelius, 12-cv-00815, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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