RICHMOND, Va. — Citizens should defy the federal government’s contraceptive mandate, even to the point of going to jail, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a recent radio interview.
Cuccinelli, a Catholic who is running this year for governor of Virginia, told conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace that civil disobedience would expose the "tyranny" behind the federal law that would compel religiously affiliated organizations and private businesses to cover contraception, abortifacients and sterilization in their employee health-insurance plans.
"My local bishop said he told a group, ‘Well, you know, I told a group I’m ready to go to jail,’ and I told him, ‘Bishop, don’t take this personally — you need to go to jail,’" said Cuccinelli, one of the first state attorneys general to file a federal lawsuit against the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Cuccinelli’s spokesman Brian Gottstein said the attorney general was not available for comment because of the busy state legislative session.
Cuccinelli spoke about the issue in a subsequent interview with The Washington Times.
"I’m certainly not advocating that people go to jail, but religious liberty is why a lot of people came to this country," Cuccinelli said. "If our government is driving so many people to be contemplating this kind of civil disobedience, I think there’s a good reason to double check and ask, ‘Have we gone too far here?’"
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment on his remarks. However, the attorney general’s statements are in line with a March 2012 USCCB document that warned Catholics to be prepared to engage in civil disobedience if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate was not rescinded.
"Some unjust laws impose such injustices on individuals and organizations that disobeying the laws may be justified," the bishops wrote in the message, which was formatted for use as a parish bulletin insert. "Every effort must be made to repeal them. When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties."
The bishops also cited a passage from Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," in which the civil-rights leader noted St. Augustine’s proverb "An unjust law is no law at all."
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in November that the Catholic Church would "not obey" the "immoral" mandate and that the Church was prepared for a long-term fight.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has also mentioned civil disobedience as a possible response for Catholics morally opposed to the mandate.
The Catholic Association’s senior fellow, Ashley McGuire, invoked King’s example in defending Cuccinelli, who has come under fire from Planned Parenthood in Virginia for his radio statements.
"As the great civil-rights leader taught this country a few short decades ago, peaceful civil disobedience, even to the point of going to jail, is a powerful way to protest unjust laws," McGuire wrote Jan. 12 on the association’s blog.
"Pro-abortion activists should expect nothing less from religious believers who cannot and will not violate their consciences, regardless of whether they wear a suit and sit at a desk or wear a cassock and stand at an altar," McGuire said.
Cuccinelli also quoted Abraham Lincoln’s statement that the "best way to get rid of an unjust law is to enforce it vigorously." If, indeed, people objecting to the mandate were jailed, Cuccinelli said that would "provide an example of what tyranny means when it’s played to its logical conclusion."
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said during an interview with the Register that he commended the attorney general’s stand.
"I welcome it. I think it’s excellent," said Donohue, who noted that civil disobedience, after all legal avenues are exhausted, has a long history in the United States, dating back to Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century.
"It’s a last resort," Donohue said. "I commend the attorney general of Virginia for speaking plainly. Hopefully, others follow suit, so that he won’t be out there by himself."
Stephen Neill, editor of The Catholic Virginian, the newspaper for the Diocese of Richmond, Va., told the Register that the attorney general was speaking for himself and that civil disobedience would be a decision left to the consciences of individuals who morally objected to the mandate’s provisions and could not violate their consciences by complying with the law.
"If somebody thought they would be willing to go to jail over it, that would be their personal response," said Neill, who noted that the diocese is involved in several pro-life activities, including the March for Life.
Hobby Lobby Update
Cuccinelli made his statements just as Hobby Lobby, a for-profit retail chain that has challenged the HHS mandate in court, announced that it had found a way to extend the deadline for compliance with the mandate, thus delaying any possible financial penalties it might be required to pay for refusing to provide co-pay-free abortifacient drugs in its updated employee health plan.
Previously, Hobby Lobby had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to request a reprieve until the appeals process for its legal challenge to the mandate had been exhausted. But U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied that petition, while acknowledging that the appeals process would continue.
Hobby Lobby had faced $1.3 million per day in possible penalties beginning Jan. 1. However, the company found a way to shift the start date for its updated employee health-insurance program by several months, attorneys said.
Religious nonprofits, such as colleges and hospitals, are not required to comply with the mandate until Aug. 1, 2013, because they received a one-year "safe harbor" extension. Meanwhile, non-exempt employers were required to begin providing co-pay-free contraceptives and related services by August 2012, or whenever they subsequently updated their health plans.
There are more than 40 pending lawsuits in federal courts against the HHS mandate, including one filed by the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). The Register is a service of EWTN.
Hobby Lobby intends to continue its own court fight against the mandate during the period before it is required to update its company health-insurance program.
"Hobby Lobby does not provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs in its health-care plan," said Peter Dobelbower, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the craft-store chain owned by an evangelical Christian family. "Hobby Lobby will continue to vigorously defend its religious liberty and oppose the mandate and any penalties."
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.