Why Catholics are suing the government: It has no right to force us to choose between our religious beliefs and those we serve

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The announcement that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, The Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh Inc., along with 40 other Catholic institutions in our beloved country, have filed lawsuits against federal agencies has no doubt raised some eyebrows. Institutions of the Catholic Church of 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 -- even self-insured plans -- cover all FDA-approved contraception and sterilization procedures, including drugs that cause abortions. The only exemption is for church-related institutions that primarily employ and serve individuals of their own faith and whose purpose is instruction in that 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 here 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 Barack Obama responded with an "accommodation" for religious institutions, giving the impression that the problem was resolved. It was not.

First, no accommodation exists. The mandate was made final Feb. 15. It is the law and will go into effect for some institutions this August, for others next August. The mandate remains in place exactly as first written, as the president proudly stated in his commencement address at Barnard College May 14.

"Accommodating" 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 -- self-insure so they would be the "carriers" paying the cost, the idea was then floated that the "manager" of the health care plan might be dunned for the coverage instead, as if the increased cost to the manager would somehow vanish into thin air.

The fact is that talk of accommodation is smoke and mirrors. The mandate holds as originally written.

Nothing has changed to expand in any way the very narrow so-called religious exemption. Nothing has changed in the federal government forcing faith-based institutions to provide access to services our church considers morally and religiously objectionable, even if "accommodations" had been written into the guidelines. Nothing has changed in the federal government forcing virtually every Catholic social service agency, university or hospital in the United States to violate their religious beliefs.

This is 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; Catholic University of America; the Michigan Catholic Conference and Our Sunday Visitor Inc.

The filing of these lawsuits 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, which exist to protect our constitutional principles and freedoms.

The issue 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 had been prior to Feb. 15.

The church cannot be forced to violate its own sacred beliefs. To do so would starkly contradict 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 ask 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 even though they are not Catholic. We will not concede to the federal government the right for it 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.


Annabelle McGannon is executive director of The Catholic Cemeteries Association, Susan L. Rauscher is executive director of Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh Inc. and David A. Zubik is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. First Published May 25, 2012 12:00 AM


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