June 12, 2012 // Local

Lawsuit filed defending religious liberty

FORT WAYNE — The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Catholic Charities of the diocese, Saint Anne Home and Retirement Community, Franciscan Alliance, the University of Saint Francis and Our Sunday Visitor have filed a lawsuit against various government defendants, seeking justice from U.S. District Court (Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division). The University of Notre Dame has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court (Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division).

Forty-three Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed suit in federal court Monday, May 21, at 11 a.m.

At a news conference held Monday afternoon in the Archbishop Noll Catholic Center in Fort Wayne, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades said, “(The U.S. bishops) have pursued various avenues to correct the problem of the overarching and overreaching mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services without litigation. Our efforts with the White House and with Congress have not succeeded, so now a number of our dioceses, Catholic schools and universities, Catholic health systems and Catholic charitable organizations are pursuing the judicial route.”

The defendants named were the U.S. Department of Health and Human services (HHS), the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Department of Labor and their respective secretaries.

The lawsuit stems from the recently enacted HHS mandate in which religious employers who do not qualify for a narrow exemption will be forced to provide to their employees abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptive products and services at no cost to employees.

This mandate presents a clear and present danger to these Catholic entities’ ability to teach and live their faith, and would make them complicit in providing and facilitating products and services contrary to their clearly stated doctrines.

The plaintiffs in this case believe the HHS mandate to be clearly unconstitutional and any accommodations previously made were substandard and unacceptable.

“American history and tradition, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protect religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action,” Bishop Rhoades said at the news conference. “Religious freedom, protected in the U.S. Constitution and other laws and statutes, is rooted in the dignity of every human person. It is inherent in our humanity, a God-given right. It is a cornerstone of basic human rights and is necessary for the flourishing of a just society. We are obliged to defend it for ourselves and for others. We are asking in this lawsuit that this right be respected by our government.”

This lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference. It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to provide and facilitate services that violate their religious beliefs.

Bishop Rhoades said, “The government has no place defining ‘religious employer’ so narrowly that it only includes houses of worship. This reduces the freedom of religion to the freedom of worship. Religious liberty is about witness and action, as well as worship. The HHS exemption excludes most Catholic hospitals, schools, universities and social service providers. They are ‘not religious enough,’ according to the HHS mandate, to qualify for the exemption. Our diocese carries out our mission of service through our diocesan offices, parishes and schools, and through the work of our affiliated ministries. All of these institutions are guided by Catholic beliefs.”

He added, “Today we ask people of all faith traditions, and all people of conscience to join us in our efforts to restore religious liberty to its rightful place; a cornerstone of our country, and our first, most cherished liberty.”

The University of Notre Dame’s lawsuit charges that these components of the regulation are a violation of the religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal laws.

The federal mandate requires the University of Notre Dame and similar religious organizations to provide in their insurance plans abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, which are contrary to Catholic teaching. It also authorizes the government to determine which organizations are sufficiently “religious” to warrant an exemption from the requirement.

“This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives,” Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, wrote in a message to members of the campus community. “For if we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions.”

“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.”
Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., is a not-for-profit enterprise that is self-insured. It does not fund abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization or contraception.

“We are concerned that these regulations, if not overturned, would force Our Sunday Visitor to provide such coverage even when the Catholic Church has consistently taught that they are wrong and a violation of Church teaching,” said Erlandson.

In an editorial, Our Sunday Visitor said that it “stands proudly with our fellow Catholic apostolates and with our bishops in resisting this challenge.”

The newspaper asked readers “to stand with us — in charity, praying first and foremost for conversions of heart; in civility, arguing the facts of this case without recourse to bitter partisanship or political rhetoric; and in solidarity, knowing that whatever sacrifices we bear and whatever challenges we endure, we are only doing what is our responsibility as American citizens practicing our faith in the public square.”

A statement released by the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne said: “As a Catholic institution and in response to a request from Bishop Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in which we serve, the University of Saint Francis has opted into the litigation to support the effort of the bishops to protect our religious freedom as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”

Sean McBride, Tim Johnson of Today’s Catholic and Nancy Frazier O’Brien of Catholic News Service contributed to this article.

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.