Published May 21, 2012
NEW YORK – Roman Catholic leaders opened a new front against the Obama administration mandate that employers provide workers birth control coverage, filing federal lawsuits Monday on behalf of dioceses, schools and health care agencies that argued the requirement violates religious freedom.
Among the plaintiffs is the University of Notre Dame, which in February had praised President Barack Obama for pledging to accommodate religious groups and find a way to soften the rule. Notre Dame president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said the school had since decided to sue because "progress has not been encouraging" in talks with administration officials.
The lawsuits have been filed in eight states and the District of Columbia by the Archdioceses of Washington and New York, the Michigan Catholic Conference, Catholic Charities in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Indiana, health care agencies in New York and two dioceses in Texas.
"We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress, and we'll keep at it, but there's still no fix," said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."
Erin Shields, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, said Monday the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The liberal advocacy group Catholics United accused the bishops of serving a "right-wing political agenda."
Health and Human Services adopted the mandate to improve health care for women. Last year, an advisory panel from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government, recommended including birth control on the list of covered services, partly because it promotes maternal and child health by allowing women to space their pregnancies.
However, many leaders across faith traditions and political ideology argued that the mandate's exception for religious groups was too narrow. The original rule generally allowed churches and other houses of worship to opt out, but kept the requirement in place for religiously affiliated nonprofits, including hospitals, colleges and charities.
The political furor caught the administration by surprise. In response, Obama offered to soften the rule so that insurers would pay for birth control instead of religious groups. However, the bishops and others have said that the accommodation, which is still under discussion, doesn't go far enough to protect religious freedom. An Obama administration official said the rule was still under discussion with religious leaders.
The lawsuits are the latest in the intensifying standoff between Roman Catholic bishops and the Obama administration during this election year.
The bishops plan a national campaign for religious freedom in the two weeks leading up to the July Fourth holiday. Last week, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl lambasted Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, for inviting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to make a graduation speech. Sebelius, who defended religious freedom in her talk, was named as a defendant in the lawsuits Monday, along with her agency and others.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, had previously filed four other federal lawsuits challenging the mandate on behalf of religious schools and others. Still, observers had been closely watching for Notre Dame's next step.
The university, dubbed the Catholic Harvard, in the past indicated willingness to work with Obama, despite his support for abortion rights. Notre Dame came under unprecedented criticism from U.S. bishops and others in 2009 for inviting Obama as commencement speaker and presenting him with an honorary law degree.
In February, when Obama responded to the complaints of religious leaders about the mandate, Jenkins said in a statement that, "we applaud the willingness of the administration to work with religious organizations to find a solution acceptable to all parties."
On Monday, Jenkins said, "although I do not question the good intentions and sincerity of all involved in these discussions, progress has not been encouraging."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not a plaintiff in the lawsuits. Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, whose diocese is among those suing the government, said the law firm Jones Day was handling the lawsuits pro bono nationally.
AP writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed from Washington. Joseph Mandak contributed from Pittsburgh.