President Obama’s contraception mandate is facing its biggest legal challenge yet, in a lawsuit brought by seven state attorneys general, a school, two women, a charitable group and a major Catholic insurer.
In their lawsuit filed Feb. 23 against the federal government, the 12 plaintiffs challenge the rule they say “would coerce religious organizations … to directly subsidize contraception, abortifacients, sterilization and related services in contravention with their religious beliefs.”
They maintain that the administration’s rule, requiring insurance coverage of the controversial drugs and devices, is an “unprecedented invasion” of their “First Amendment rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and free association.”
“This case illustrates that the federal government’s rule punishes people of faith in all situations, just because they want to make decisions according to their own religious beliefs,” Alliance Defense Fund legal counsel Matt Bowman told EWTN News on Feb. 23.
“In this case, you have individuals, Catholic agencies, a religious school, a nun and a variety of states trying to defend their citizen’s right not to have their religious freedom attacked by this federal mandate involving abortion-inducing drugs and other items.”
The lawsuit is the fifth and largest so far against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who confirmed on Feb. 10 that many religious institutions would be forced to underwrite “preventive services” as part of federal health-care reform.
Other defendants named in the suit include U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, all of whom are being sued in their capacity as officials of the U.S. government.
The 12 plaintiffs include the attorneys general of Nebraska, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma. They are joined by Catholic Social Services, Nebraska’s Pius X Catholic High School, and the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America.
Two Catholic women, Sister Mary Catherine, CK, and lay missionary Stacy Molai, are also suing Sebelius, Geithner and Solis.
While all of the plaintiffs allege a government violation of the First Amendment, they do so on particular grounds due to their individual circumstances.
The Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America, also known as the Catholic Mutual Group, was founded in 1889 and currently provides coverage to over half of U.S. Catholic dioceses, along with over 250 religious orders and other institutions.
“Insurers are often run by people with religious faith, who should not have to choose between their belief and their participation in our society,” Bowman noted, explaining the importance of Catholic Mutual Group’s involvement in the suit.
Because the group does not primarily employ workers who share its religious beliefs, it would be subject to the contraception mandate if it chose to change its employee health-care plans from those it offered as of March 2010.
Catholic Social Services, a Nebraska-based charitable organization, does not qualify for the mandate’s religious exemption because it serves people of all faiths. Pius X High School, similarly, could be forced to cover services which its current insurance plan excludes for moral reasons.
According to the seven state attorneys general, the contraception coverage rule’s implementation would force many non-exempt religious institutions to stop offering health insurance for reasons of conscience.
Many of these employees, the lawsuit notes, would have to shift to Medicaid in order to comply with the federal health-care law’s individual coverage mandate, placing a financial burden on states already facing a spike in Medicaid enrollments because of the health-care law.
Both of the individual plaintiffs object on moral grounds to subsidizing contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs through their health plans.
Sister Mary Catherine’s plan would be subject to the mandate, while Molai may have to choose between a morally offensive plan and the loss of health insurance in the future.
Bowman told EWTN News that the broad spectrum of plaintiffs showed the mandate’s dramatic impact on religious liberty throughout society. He praised the state attorneys general for their willingness to defend freedom for all faiths.
“This is not an issue that is isolated to one church,” said Bowman. “The federal government’s actions attack the freedom of all Americans to live and practice, whatever their faith is, without being forced to violate the sanctity of human life and sexuality.”
“It is the duty of government to protect the rights of the citizens, because those rights come from God. They don’t come from the federal government that claims the ability to define who’s ‘religious’ and who isn’t.”
“The states in this case are doing what the government should do, which is to protect American citizens from the attack on freedom that the federal government, and the people in charge of it at the moment, are waging against religious believers.”
Feb. 27 update:
As controversy and lawsuits continue over the federal contraception mandate, the president of New Hampshire’s College of St. Mary Magdalene is calling for changes to a similar law in his state.
“The state of New Hampshire is interfering with our ability to be fully Catholic and violating our religious freedom,” George Harne told a Constitutional Review and Statutory Committee of the New Hampshire state Legislature on Feb. 23.
The legislature is considering whether to amend an existing state law that requires employers to offer coverage of contraception and sterilization in their health plans. Passed in 2000 by a Republican legislature, the law imposes a mandate similar to the controversial new federal rule.
In the wake of the national controversy, some New Hampshire legislators have moved to introduce a religious-freedom exemption into their own state’s existing contraception-coverage mandate.
Due for a vote in early March, the proposed amendment would allow New Hampshire employers to opt out of covering the controversial “preventive services” in their health-insurance plans.
Following Harne’s testimony on Thursday, the review committee voted 10-6 to recommend a change in the law.
Harne told the committee that upon becoming president of the College of St. Mary Magdalene in 2011, he “undertook a complete review of every aspect of our institution to ensure that we were truly Catholic, not merely Catholic in name only.”
“Our commitment is firm. We will not compromise the Catholic identity of our college,” the president declared. “Every aspect of our identity must be consistent with the teachings of the Church.”
Republican House Speaker William O’Brien only recently learned that the state mandate existed, having discovered it while criticizing the president’s similar national plan, according to The Associated Press.
At Thursday’s hearing, O’Brien said it was “a true shame that this disastrous federal law has forced us to come here today to offer relief to people of faith to ensure they are not forced to buy a product that they believe is immoral.”
At the national level, O’Brien has accused President Obama of sacrificing religious freedom to win women’s votes through mandated insurance coverage of contraception. He spoke out on Thursday against the “trampling on our religious rights by the president seeking electoral advantage.”
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union says it will sue to block the religious-freedom exemption to the local contraception mandate if it passes in the legislature.