.- President Obama's contraception mandate is facing its biggest legal challenge yet, in a lawsuit brought by seven state attorneys general, a school, two women, a charitable group, and a major Catholic insurer.
In their lawsuit filed Feb. 23 against the federal government, the 12 plaintiffs challenge the rule they say “would coerce religious organizations … to directly subsidize contraception, abortifacients, sterilization, and related services in contravention with their religious beliefs.”
They maintain that the administration's rule, requiring insurance coverage of the controversial drugs and devices, is an “unprecedented invasion” of their “First Amendment rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and free association.”
“This case illustrates that the federal government's rule punishes people of faith in all situations, just because they want to make decisions according to their own religious beliefs,” Alliance Defense Fund Legal Counsel Matt Bowman told CNA on Feb. 23.
“In this case you have individuals, Catholic agencies, a religious school, a nun, and a variety of states – trying to defend their citizen's right not to have their religious freedom attacked by this federal mandate involving abortion-inducing drugs and other items.”
The lawsuit is the fifth and largest so far against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who confirmed on Feb. 10 that many religious institutions would be forced to underwrite “preventive services” as part of federal health care reform.
Other defendants named in the suit include U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, all of whom are being sued in their capacity as officials of the U.S. government.
The 12 plaintiffs include the attorneys general of Nebraska, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Oklahoma. They are joined by Catholic Social Services, Nebraska's Pius X Catholic High School, and the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America.
Two Catholic women, Sister Mary Catherine, C.K., and lay missionary Stacy Molai, are also suing Sebelius, Geithner, and Solis.
While all of the plaintiffs allege a government violation of the First Amendment, they do so on particular grounds due to their individual circumstances.
The Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America, also known as the Catholic Mutual Group, was founded in 1889 and currently provides coverage to over half of U.S. Catholic dioceses along with over 250 religious orders and other institutions.
“Insurers are often run by people with religious faith, who should not have to choose between their belief and their participation in our society,” Bowman noted, explaining the importance of Catholic Mutual Group's involvement in the suit.
Because the group does not primarily employ workers who share its religious beliefs, it would be subject to the contraception mandate if it chose to change its employee health care plans to switch from those it offered as of March 2010.
Catholic Social Services, a Nebraska-based charitable organization, does not qualify for the mandate's religious exemption because it serves people of all faiths. Pius X high school, similarly, could be forced to cover services which its current insurance plan excludes for moral reasons.
According to the seven state attorneys general, the contraception coverage rule's implementation would force many non-exempt religious institutions to stop offering health insurance for reasons of conscience.
Many of these employees, the lawsuit notes, would have to shift to Medicaid in order to comply with the federal health care law's individual coverage mandate – placing a financial burden on states already facing a spike in Medicaid enrollments because of the health care law.
Both of the individual plaintiffs object on moral grounds to subsidizing contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs through their health plans.
Sr. Mary Catherine's plan would be subject to the mandate, while Molai may have to choose between a morally offensive plan, and the loss of health insurance in the future.
Bowman told CNA that the broad spectrum of plaintiffs showed the mandate's dramatic impact on religious liberty throughout society. He praised the state attorneys general for their willingness to defend freedom for all faiths.
“This is not an issue that is isolated to one church,” said Bowman. “The Federal government's actions attack the freedom of all Americans to live and practice whatever their faith is, without being forced to violate the sanctity of human life and sexuality.”
“It is the duty of government to protect the rights of the citizens – because those rights come from God. They don't come from the federal government that claims the ability to define who's 'religious' and who isn't.”
“The states in this case are doing what the government should do, which is to protect American citizens from the attack on freedom that the federal government, and the people in charge of it at the moment, are waging against religious believers.”