(Photo: REUTERS/Patrick Andrade)
Forty-three Catholic agencies filed suit in 12 separate federal courts Monday over the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring employers to cover contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs in their health insurance policies.
"We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress -- and we'll keep at it -- but there's still no fix," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. "Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."
In a Monday interview with The Christian Post, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB, confirmed that conversations with the White House to provide an accommodation for religious groups opposed to the mandate have been ongoing but "they haven't seemed to go very far."
"A lot of people don't really understand that the First Amendment, not only does it say that you can't set up a state religion, but it also says that you have to be able to have the free exercise of religion, and it is that part that is of great concern for people right now," Walsh pointed out.
The USCCB is not one of those filing suit. The 43 agencies include dioceses, hospitals, schools and church agencies across the country.
"Through this lawsuit, plaintiffs do not seek to impose their religious beliefs on others. They simply ask that the government not impose its values and policies on plaintiffs, in direct violation of their religious beliefs," says one of the suits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Catholic Charities of the diocese, St. Anne Home and Retirement Community, Franciscan Alliance, University of St. Francis and Our Sunday Visitor, according to Catholic News Service.
HHS argues that the mandate is necessary to provide for women's health.
The mandate has a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that most Catholic organizations would not qualify. Only religious organizations that primarily serve coreligionists would qualify, for instance.
Welcoming the lawsuits, Alliance Defense Fund CEO and General Counsel Alan Sears said the issue at hand is religious freedom. "These new cases are about the very right to determine what is 'religious' and what faith-based beliefs may be followed in life. They join the growing list of evangelical, protestant, and Catholic religious organizations and employers who are taking a stand in objecting to the government when it forces any religious institution or individual to provide or fund morally repugnant services."
The controversy over the birth control mandate first erupted after it was announced by HHS in January. In order to quell the firestorm, President Obama offered to make changes to the mandate in February. Religious institutions would no longer have to provide the coverage, but insurance companies would have to provide the coverage to their employees, if requested, at no additional cost.
Many religious institutions found this change unsatisfactory. They were concerned that they would still be paying for the services through higher premiums.
Some non-Catholic religious groups, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, have also opposed the mandate. Besides having moral objections to paying for some of the services the mandate requires, these groups have also argued that the mandate violates religious liberty.