Three years ago, the University of Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to deliver a commencement address and conferred on him an honorary law degree. But on Monday, the university joined 42 other Catholic institutions in suing the Obama Administration over new Obamacare regulations that force religious institutions to pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization regardless of the employers’ moral or religious objections.
The mandate’s narrow exemption effectively applies only to churches and other houses of worship; religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges, charities and other non-profits don’t qualify for a religious exemption. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, explained the significance of the Administration’s mandate and its impact on those institutions, remarking that, “For the first time in this country’s history, the government’s new definition of religious institutions suggests that some of the very institutions that put our faith into practice–schools, hospitals, and social service organizations–are not ‘religious enough.’”
In total, 12 lawsuits were filed this week challenging the Administration’s anti-conscience mandate, and the wide range of organizations joining the legal challenge underscores the enormous opposition to the mandate. Heritage’s Sarah Torre explains that the lawsuits span from the Catholic dioceses of Washington, D.C., and Joilet, Illinois, to Catholic Charities of Jackson, Mississippi, and the Michigan Catholic Conference. “The range of the 43 institutions that have joined the dozen suits highlights the variety of Good Samaritan groups harmed by the mandate,” Torre writes. “These ministries serve inner-city children, the elderly, deaf, developmentally disabled, HIV/AIDS patients, and homeless–among many others. Catholic outreach, like many other religious groups in America, seeks to serve those most in need.”
These 43 plaintiffs join a number of others who had filed similar suits in recent weeks, including three evangelical higher education institutions: Colorado Christian University, Louisiana College and Geneva College. As the presidents of these schools explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in April:
[T]he Obama administration has passed a rule that will penalize our colleges with faith-based fines merely because we center our beliefs about the sanctity of human life on the Bible, not on the demands of federal bureaucrats. The administration’s mandate that religious employers provide coverage of abortion-inducing drugs for their faculty, staff, and students is a bridge too far in America.
This ‘conscience tax’ is a blatant violation of the freedoms of religion and speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and affirmed by federal laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This mandate would be unjust even if it applied only to those who accept government funding, but it does much more than that. It applies to private, religious employers just because they exist in American society, regardless of whether they receive government funding.
Indeed, it is the Obama Administration’s attempt to broadly impose its will on any religious organization in violation of First Amendment protections that brought such a wide variety of institutions to challenge the Obamacare regulations. Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins wrote that his university’s lawsuit goes beyond a debate about contraception and is about the freedom of a religious organization to “live its mission”:
For if one Presidential Administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another Administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements. If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called the Obamacare mandate an “unprecedented” violation of religious freedom by the federal government. In addition to the lawsuits, Catholic bishops are planning a national campaign for religious freedom in the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July holiday. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained the urgency behind their actions: “We have tried negotiation 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.”
So yet again, Obamacare’s overreach will come before the courts, this time because its centrally driven health care policy is conflicting with conscience and poses a direct threat to the nation’s religious institutions. Regardless of the outcome, there is one thing Congress can do to stop the federal government’s vast overreach into American life — repeal Obamacare now, and then replace it with market-based reforms that respect religious liberty.