States file suit against HHS mandate

WASHINGTON - Seven states have filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) mandate that nearly all health insurance plans cover contraceptives free of charge, saying that it violates religious freedom and leaves "countless additional religious freedoms vulnerable to government intrusion."

Joining the attorneys general of Nebraska, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma in the lawsuit were a Catholic nun, a lay missionary working with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), Pius X Catholic High School in Lincoln, Neb., and the Omaha-based Catholic Mutual Group, a self-insurance fund that covers more than 125 dioceses or archdioceses and 200 Catholic religious congregations in the United States and Canada.

The latest lawsuit was filed as protests against the HHS mandate mounted. More than 4,500 women signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Congress "to allow religious institutions and individuals to continue to witness to their faiths in all their fullness."

In addition, 18 U.S. senators asked Obama to rescind the mandate, saying that its implementation "will unjustly impact religiously affiliated organizations and individuals."

The mandate requires no-cost coverage of all contraceptives approved by Food and Drug Administration, including some that can cause an abortion, as well as sterilizations, as part of preventive health services for women. A narrow religious exemption applies only to those employed by houses of worship.

In a revision announced Feb. 10, Obama said religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives if they were morally opposed to them, but the health insurers that provide their health plans would be required to offer contraceptives free of charge to women who requested such coverage. He also announced a one-year "safe harbor" before enforcement of the mandate would begin for religious employers.

The lawsuit by the seven attorneys general, all Republicans, followed earlier suits filed by Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Colorado Christian University in Denver; the Eternal Word Television Network in Birmingham, Ala.; and Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.

"The First Amendment has, for centuries, served as a rampart against government interference with religious liberty," says the brief filed with the U.S. District Court for Nebraska. "The federal government's regulation is an unprecedented invasion of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and free association."

Sister Mary Catherine of the School Sisters of Christ the King in Lincoln and FOCUS missionary Stacy Molai of Omaha say in the lawsuit that they would drop their health insurance coverage if the contraceptive mandate is not overturned.

Molai has "an incurable chronic condition" and health insurance coverage "is critical in order for Molai to avoid financial ruin and possibly life-threatening consequences," the lawsuit says.

The open letter from women was organized by Helen Alvare, who teaches law at George Mason University School of Law, and Kim Daniels, former counsel to the Thomas More Law Center, under the banner, Women Speak for Themselves (http://womenspeakforthemselves.com).

"No one speaks for all women on these issues," the letter says. "Those who purport to do so are simply attempting to deflect attention from the serious religious liberty issues currently at stake.

"Each of us, Catholic or not, is proud to stand with the Catholic Church and its rich, life-affirming teachings on sex, marriage and family life," it added. "We call on President Obama and our representatives in Congress to allow religious institutions and individuals to continue to witness to their faiths in all their fullness."

Alvare said the effort to collect signatures for the letter began with an email to a few of her and Daniels' friends and grew exponentially.

"Almost every email (reply) contained a letter expressing the woman's enormous relief at the chance to speak for herself," Alvare said in a news release. "It is moving to read more than 1,000 emails - particularly from doctors, nurses and teachers - expressing their gratitude for the Catholic Church's willingness to stand down the government's claim to speak for all women and women's health."

The letter from 18 Republican senators said the president's revised rule "leaves few viable options for religiously affiliated organizations and individuals to avoid using their funds to pay, directly or indirectly, for services they consider morally objectionable."

Among the options would be to drop health insurance coverage for their employees or to limit hiring only to Catholics in order to fit the administration's "narrow definition of a religious employer," they said.

"Because religiously affiliated hospitals and other organizations are major employers in many communities, ... it is hard to comprehend why this administration would deliberately implement a policy that would have such a detrimental impact," the senators said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970