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Birth-control goes to court, again

Warren RicheyThe Christian Science Monitor

In a coordinated pushback against the Obama administration, 43 Catholic institutions filed a dozen lawsuits in federal courts across the country on Monday, charging that new federal rules requiring most religious employers to provide health insurance that includes birth-control services violates their fundamental right to religious freedom.

The lawsuits are asking federal judges to declare that new rules enacted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in January violate First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religion and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under the new rules, most employers – including religious charities, hospitals, and universities – are required to provide their employees cost-free access to reproductive health-care services including sterilization, contraception, and some abortion-causing drugs.

Catholic organizations objected to the rules, arguing that they placed religious employers in the untenable position of subsidizing a mode of conduct that would violate their religious teachings and moral values.

“We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with Congress – and we’ll keep at it – but there’s still no fix. Time is running out,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement applauding the litigation.

“Our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now,” he said.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf a range of Catholic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University of America.

“This lawsuit is about one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference,” wrote Stephen Brogan in a 57-page complaint filed in federal court in Washington.

“It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Those services are freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the government itself from making them more widely available,” Mr. Brogan said.

“Here, however, the government seeks to require plaintiffs – all Catholic entities – to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing, paying for, and/or facilitating access to those services,” he wrote.

The women’s reproductive health organization, Planned Parenthood, denounced the lawsuits as an effort to restrict women’s access to low-cost birth control.

“This isn’t a religious or political issue – it’s a medical issue, and that’s where we should keep it,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a statement.

“It is unbelievable that in the year 2012 we have to fight for access to birth control. Yet this lawsuit would make it harder for millions of women to get birth control.”

After the controversy arose over the HHS rule change, the Obama administration offered an alternative. Officials proposed that health-insurance companies could be required to provide reproductive services free of charge to employees of objecting religious organizations.

Catholic officials said the change would not resolve the core issue. “Catholic teaching does not simply require Catholic institutions to avoid directly paying for practices that are viewed as intrinsically immoral,” the complaint filed in Washington says. “It also requires them to avoid actions that facilitate those practices.”

Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett said the HHS mandate imposes a “serious and unnecessary burden” on many religious institutions.

He said the lawsuits were not asking the courts to endorse a particular religious view, only to respect and accommodate their views.

“Religious institutions are not seeking to control what their employees buy, use, or do in private; they are trying to avoid being conscripted by the government into acting in a way that would be inconsistent with their character, mission, and values,” Professor Garnett said in a statement.

In addition to charging violations of religious freedom and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the complaint also accuses the administration of engaging in religious discrimination, interfering in internal church matters, and violating free-speech protections by attempting to compel Catholic institutions to spend money in support of a viewpoint that conflicts with church teachings.