St. Louis is one of several archdioceses to sue over contraception mandate
In a solemn voice, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson announced Monday afternoon that the St. Louis Archdiocese and Catholic Charities of St. Louis had jointly filed a law suit challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“This is no small matter,” he said in the foyer of the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. Catholic Church leaders, he said, have taken “every imaginable avenue” to work with the federal government but face an August deadline to comply with the mandate to include birth control, sterilization and abortifacients in their employee insurance policies. This leaves these groups, Carlson said with a choice between “violating the (U.S.) law and violating their moral convictions.”
Monday 12 lawsuits were filed by regional groups of 43 dioceses, including Springfield, and Peoria, Ill., hospitals, schools and church agencies. Notre Dame University, Catholic University of America and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, were among those filing suit. All contended that the federal mandate violates religious freedom, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a sister of Mercy and spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Carlson stressed that the law suit is not about access to contraception and said that contraceptive materials are widely available for free or at low cost.
“It is not a woman’s issue,” he said. “It is a freedom of religion issue.”
He said that as the shepherd of St. Louis Catholics, he cannot stand by “while our first, most-cherished freedom is eroded, that is our religious liberty.”
The rule generally allowed churches and other houses of worship to opt out of the requirement. Religious nonprofits, such as universities and hospitals, could opt to have insurance companies cover the cost of contraceptives rather than pay for them directly. Twenty-eight states already require employers to cover birth control like any other medication. The Obama administration offered a compromise under which employees of these institutions that wanted contraceptive coverage could request it from the insurance company, which would than have to provide it.
“Catholic hospitals and Catholic charities and Catholic schools don’t serve people because they are Catholic,” Carlson said. “We serve people because we are Catholic.”
Carlson said the cost of the suit will not come from parish collections or the annual catholic appeal, now underway, but declined to say who is paying for it.
He said he and other Catholic leaders including staff and leaders of the Conference of Catholic Bishops have “pursued every imaginable avenue" to correct the mandate to fund medical procedures and prescriptions that they believe are morally wrong without litigation.
The St. Louis lawsuit demands a jury trial. It says: “It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception. Those services are freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the government itself from making them more widely available. Here, however, the government seeks to require plaintiffs — all Catholic entities — to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing, paying for, and/or facilitating access to those services. American history and tradition, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), safeguard religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (which is not a party to the law suits) and archbishop of New York, spoke passionately about how the mandate violated the nation’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom when he was in St. Louis two weeks ago for a special Mass at the Cathedral Basilica honoring his entrance into the College of Cardinals.
Monday Dolan said that he applauded St. Louis, his own New York and other dioceses, hospitals, schools and church agencies that filed suit on the grounds of religious freedom.
“We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress – and we’ll keep at it – but there's still no fix,” he said in a statement Monday.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in Kirkwood, the nation’s second largest Lutheran denomination, and some Orthodox Jewish leaders have also spoken publicly against the HHS mandate. Carlson said he was unaware of any non-Catholic groups interested in filing briefs in support of the St. Louis suit.