The announcement that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Catholic Cemeteries Association and Catholic Charities have together filed a lawsuit against selected federal agencies no doubt raised some eyebrows here, as well as in 12 other archdioceses and dioceses in our beloved country. Institutions of the Catholic Church in Pittsburgh are not the usual suspects in taking on the federal government. Why have we filed this lawsuit?
Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate that by August 2012 all individual and group health insurance plans — including self-insured plans — cover all FDA-approved contraception and sterilization procedures, including drugs that cause abortions.
The only exemption to the mandate is for church-related institutions that primarily employ and serve individuals of their own faith, and whose purpose is instruction in that same faith.
Under the new HHS mandate, our church-sponsored organizations — everything from hospitals for the sick to soup kitchens that feed the hungry — are required to let the federal government be the final arbiter in determining which of our beliefs we can follow and not follow as we carry out our ministries of service to the community, ministries that in many cases we have performed for nearly 170 years in Pittsburgh.
Our lawsuit states that since the HHS mandate requires religious organizations to provide, pay for and facilitate insurance coverage for services that violate our religious beliefs, the mandate is in violation of the religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal laws.
When controversy erupted over the HHS mandate, President Obama responded that there would be an “accommodation” to religious institutions, giving the impression that the problem is resolved.
It is not. First, despite talk of an “accommodation,” no accommodation exists. The mandate was made final Feb. 15, 2012. It is the law right now and it will go into effect for some institutions this August, for others next August. The mandate remains firmly in place exactly as first written, as the president proudly stated in his commencement address at Barnard University on May 14.
Ideas have been floated by representatives of the administration — for example, that insurance carriers for religious institutions would “pay” for the coverage, rather than the faith-based institutions themselves. When it was pointed out that many faith-based institutions — including the Diocese of Pittsburgh — have self-funded insurance plans, so they would be the “carriers” paying the cost anyway, the idea was then floated that the health care “manager” of the plan might be dunned to pay for the coverage, as if the increased cost to the manager would just somehow vanish into thin air.
The fact is that any such report about an accommodation is smoke and mirrors anyway. The mandate holds as originally written, and no “accommodation” exists in the published guidelines.
Nothing has changed to expand in any way that very narrow so-called religious exemption.
Nothing has changed in a mandate that still has the federal government forcing faith-based institutions to provide direct access to services the church considers morally and religiously objectionable, even if such “accommodations” were written into the guidelines.
Nothing has changed in a mandate that has the federal government forcing virtually every Catholic social service agency, university or hospital in the United States to violate their religious beliefs.
This is all new and unprecedented. Never has the U.S. government issued such a mandate to any church-related institutions. The HHS mandate requires us to make available what we consider morally wrong. Never before has the federal government required us to violate our conscience in such a way.
We cannot accept this mandate on moral and religious grounds. And we cannot allow the federal government to interfere at such a level in the free exercise of religion guaranteed to all of us by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In taking part in this lawsuit, we are one of a total of 12 federal lawsuits nationwide that have been filed representing 43 separate plaintiffs, including Catholic archdioceses, dioceses, charitable organizations, universities, schools and health-care providers. Collectively, these archdioceses and dioceses represent 10 million Catholics, not to mention the additional millions of individuals of all faiths and no faith served by the other church-related institutions.
Among the plaintiffs outside of Pittsburgh are the University of Notre Dame, the Diocese of Erie, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Archdioceses of Washington, New York and St. Louis, the Catholic University of America, the Michigan Catholic Conference and Our Sunday Visitor Inc.
The filing of this lawsuit has nothing to do with politics. We did not pick this fight or this timing. The federal government chose to impose this on us now. In fact, this lawsuit takes the issue out of politics and places it in front of the courts that exist to protect our constitutional principles and freedoms.
The issue here is simple. Can the federal government ignore religious freedom guaranteed in the Constitution and force the church to do what it considers morally and religiously objectionable?
Some have said that this interference is what can be expected when church institutions receive government money. The truth be told, even if church institutions were to cease all cooperative relationships with government in providing services to the needy, they would still be subject to this mandate.
It has also been argued that by taking exception to the HHS mandate, somehow the church is forcing its views on the rest of the country. Nonsense. The church is simply asking that religious freedom rights be recognized and respected as they have been prior to Feb. 15. The issue here is a new mandate from the federal government forcing church-related institutions to do what the church considers morally and religiously objectionable.
The church cannot be forced to violate its own sacred beliefs. To do so starkly contradicts everything we have been taught and everything we know about religious freedom in the United States.
To qualify to be exempt from the mandate, a Catholic institution must primarily serve Catholics, primarily employ Catholics and exist solely to instruct in the faith.
We will not accept this new definition of religion from the federal government when we are serving those in need. We will not say to people “Are you Catholic?” rather than “Are you hungry, sick or in need?” We will not discriminate against people who want to serve in our institutions because they are not Catholic. We will not concede to the federal government the right to inquire about our workers’ religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of those we serve.
We will not give to the federal government the power to make us choose between our sacred beliefs or shutting our doors because we cannot violate our conscience.
That is why we have filed this lawsuit.
McGannon is executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries Association. Rauscher is executive director of Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. Bishop Zubik is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.