43 Catholic groups sue over administration's birth-control mandate

  • Article by: LAURIE GOODSTEIN , New York Times
  • Updated: May 21, 2012 - 11:08 PM

Suits against the Obama administration were filed by 43 plaintiffs in a dozen federal courts.

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New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Photo: Andrew Medichin, Associated Press

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In an effort to show a unified front, 43 Roman Catholic dioceses, schools, social service agencies and other institutions filed suits in 12 federal courts Monday challenging the Obama administration's rule that their employees receive coverage for contraception in their health insurance policies.

The nation's Catholic bishops, unable to reverse the ruling by prevailing on the White House or Congress, have now turned to the courts, as they warned they would.

The bishops say that the requirement is an unprecedented attack on religious liberty because it compels Catholic employers to provide access to services that are contrary to their religious beliefs.

The mandate is part of the Obama administration's overhaul of the health care system, which the bishops say they otherwise support.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose archdiocese in New York is among the plaintiffs, said in a statement: "We have tried negotiations with the administration and legislation with the Congress -- and we'll keep at it -- but there's still no fix. Time is running out and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."

The bishops rejected a compromise brokered by President Obama in February in an effort to defuse the conflict by having the insurance companies -- not the Catholic employers -- pay for and administer the coverage for birth control.

When some Catholic organizations broke with the bishops and greeted the accommodation positively, the bishops resolved that Catholic institutions must present a united front.

Among those filing suit are the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis; the Dioceses of Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Rockville Centre on Long Island and Springfield, Ill.; the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic University of America.

All the plaintiffs are being represented by the law firm Jones Day. The defendants are the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury.

At least 11 other Catholic and evangelical organizations had already filed suits challenging the birth-control mandate, and those cases are still pending.

The White House declined to comment Monday, instead providing Obama's comments when he announced his attempt at a compromise in February: "These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they'll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the president's accommodations were vague, insufficient and would still compel Catholic organizations to violate their consciences.

The suits are the latest steps in the intensifying standoff between Roman Catholic bishops and the Obama administration during this election year.

The bishops plan a national campaign for religious freedom in the two weeks leading up to the July Fourth holiday.

Last week, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl lambasted Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, for inviting Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to make a graduation speech.

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