WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 21, 2012 (Zenit.org).- A total of 43 dioceses, hospitals, schools and Church agencies have filed 12 lawsuits in various courts of the United States as part of the ongoing dispute with the federal government over the move by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to oblige Catholic organizations to pay for contraception and abortifacients.
“Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now,” explained Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a statement today.
The regulations introduced by the HHS will force Catholic organizations and employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception to their employees free of charge.
“We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with the Congress – and we’ll keep at it – but there’s still no fix,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Dolan described the coordinated legal action as “a compelling display of the unity of the Church in defence of religious liberty.”
“It’s also a great show of the diversity of the Church’s ministries that serve the common good and that are jeopardized by the mandate – ministries to the poor, the sick, and the uneducated, to people of any faith or no faith at all,” he added.
In explaining why it was a party to the legal action, the Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division explained that the regulations narrowly define what constitutes a religious employer. As a result the vast majority of Catholic organizations, including universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, and publishing companies will not qualify for an exclusion from the obligation to cover the services that are in contradiction with Catholic teaching.
“Our lawsuit raises two questions,” said Gregory Erlandson, president of the Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division: "Whether the government can use such criteria to define the religiousness of an organization, and whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to provide and facilitate services which violate their religious beliefs.”
A press release from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., explained that it is a part of the lawsuit because the HHS rules violate the First Amendment and federal law by forcing Catholic organizations to sacrifice their beliefs in order to be able to continue their mission of serving all people in need.
“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 Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington.
The Catholic University of America is another of the plaintiffs. Its president, John Garvey, issued a statement in which he explained that while the initial protests over the new regulations led President Obama to concede that insurance companies would pay for the mandated services, such a compromise would not solve the moral objections.
The services would still be part of the cost of an insurance policy, which the Catholic University and other religious organizations have to buy. “In the end the University, its employees, and its students will be forced to pay for the prescriptions and services we find objectionable,” Garvey noted.
“Unless we can get judicial relief, we will soon have to take steps to conform to a rule we view as immoral,” he declared.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis and Catholic Charities of St. Louis are also part of the legal action against the federal government. Archbishop Robert Carlson said that the lawsuit filed today is not about contraceptives.
He said it is about freedom to practice religion. “[Religious liberty] is our first, most-cherished freedom and it requires constant vigilance and protection or it will be lost.” He added, “As a shepherd, I cannot remain silent while the right of Catholics to practice our faith is eroded!”
The lawsuits just announced are not the only ones pending regarding the HHS rules. In past months a number of other Catholic organizations have filed lawsuits in various federal courts.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is involved in a number of these lawsuits, acting on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal arts college founded by Benedictine monks, and Colorado Christian University, an evangelical college located outside of Denver.
Subsequently, in February, the Becket Fund filed on behalf of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and Ave Maria University.