Catholic institutions are striking back against a provision in the Affordable Care Act that would force them to pay for or provide contraceptives and perform procedures such as abortions.

The Archdiocese of Washington and other local church-affiliated plaintiffs filed a legal action May 21 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The lawsuit stems from a mandate in the new health care law, which requires private insurers to offer preventive services—including contraception—free of charge, without deductibles or co-payments. In applying the law, HHS acknowledged religious objections and offered an exemption to religious organizations, such as churches, whose employees also adhere to the faith. However, that exception was negated for church-affiliated institutions—such as schools, charities and hospitals—that employ and serve non-adherents to that faith.

The archdiocese’s complaint maintains that the HHS mandate wrongly changes the definition of a religious institution.

“For the first time in this country’s history, the government’s new definition of religious institutions suggests that some of the very institutions that put our faith into practice—schools, hospitals, and social service organizations—are not ‘religious enough,’” said Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. He added, “Catholic institutions of the Archdiocese of Washington, including its schools and social service ministries, do not qualify as religious and the mandate forces them to provide coverage for drugs and procedures that we believe are morally wrong.”

More egregiously, the HHS mandate violates the First Amendment and federal law by interfering with the free exercise of religion, forcing Catholic institutions to sacrifice their beliefs in order to carry out their mission of service, added Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“There is no way out of the dilemma the mandate forces upon us. Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, and social service ministries employ and serve millions of people in this country and do so without regard to their religious beliefs. Under the government’s new rules, religious organizations will face an impossible choice,” said Belford.

“Serving our neighbor is part of our baptismal calling. We do what we do because we are Catholic, not because those we serve are. We have always asked: Are you hungry? Are you sick? Now, we will be forced to also ask: Are you Catholic?” she said. “This is wrong. Our mission is to serve the needs of our neighbors regardless of their faith or their beliefs.”
In addition to the Archdiocese, plaintiffs include Archbishop Carroll High School, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the Consortium of Catholic Academies of the Archdiocese of Washington, and The Catholic University of America. This local lawsuit is one of 12 actions filed nationwide Monday, on behalf of 43 separate Catholic institutions around the country. It is also part of a broader campaign against perceived threats to religious liberty that was initiated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Not everyone agrees with the lawsuit and the broader campaign, saying it was an exaggerated and hasty response to a problem that could have been worked out across a negotiating table.
“No government can accommodate every conceivable religious practice or belief, nor does the Catholic Church have a strong record of supporting accommodation of other religious communities. In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors,” observed an editorial in Commonweal, a progressive Catholic magazine.

The editorial also said the campaign could have significant—and, perhaps, unwanted—ramifications in this year’s election.

“This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion,” it stated. “The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer. “

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO