NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The University of Notre Dame refiled its lawsuit against three Cabinet agencies and their secretaries arguing it should be exempted on religious grounds from the contraceptive mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act.
“Notre Dame alleges that the purpose of the U.S. government mandate, including the narrow exemption, is to discriminate against religious institutions and organizations that oppose abortion and contraception,” the university said in its suit, filed Dec. 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.
Notre Dame had originally filed suit last year, but the District Court ruled it premature because the U.S. government had not finalized the rules for implementing the contraceptive mandate. The university engaged in talks with the Obama administration over the past year to find an acceptable resolution, but the effort failed.
When the Department of Health and Human Services issued its final rules in June of this year, many Catholic and other religious employers said they still did not go far enough to accommodate their moral objections. The mandate is expected to take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
It requires nearly all employers to provide free preventative health care coverage specifically for women. That coverage includes services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings, but it also mandates free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs – which are contrary to Catholic teaching.
At issue in Notre Dame’s suit is the limited exemption for religious organizations and the 14 tests it said the federal government uses to judge whether organizations qualify for that exemption.
“Not only do these factors favor some religious organizations at the expense of others, but they also require the government to make intrusive judgments regarding religious beliefs, practices and organizational features to determine which groups fall into the favored category,” Notre Dame said in the suit.
“Notre Dame seeks only to protect its right to the free exercise of its religion, its right to be recognized as a religious institution, its right to avoid being forced to pay for, facilitate access to, and/or become entangled in the provision of products and services that violate its religious beliefs, and its right not to be compelled to speak, or to be silent, in a way that implies acceptance or endorsement of practices directly at odds with its religious teachings.”
Defendants in the suit are HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and their respective departments.
HHS rules on the mandate also include an accommodation that allows some employers to use a third-party to provide the contraceptive coverage they find objectionable, but Catholic entities say this still involves them in allowing coverage they reject for moral reasons.
Notre Dame, with 5,200 employees, is the largest employer in St. Joseph County. About 4,600 employees use its self-insured health plan — 11,000 in all when dependents are factored in. About 2,600 of the university’s 11,000 students get health insurance through Notre Dame’s plan with Aetna, with about 100 dependents also covered.
“Notre Dame cannot avoid the U.S. government mandate without incurring crippling fines. If it eliminates its employee health plans, it is subject to annual fines of $2,000 per full-time employee,” the suit said. “If Notre Dame keeps its health plans but refuses to provide or facilitate the objectionable coverage, it is subject to fines of $100 a day per affected beneficiary. The fines, therefore, coerce Notre Dame into violating its religious beliefs.”
The passage of the Affordable Care Act “does not authorize the government to coerce Notre Dame to participate in a program whose central financial premise – ‘cost neutrality’ through reduction in the number of childbirths – is antithetical to Notre Dame’s faith,” the suit added, not does it authorize the government “to require Notre Dame to facilitate and appear to endorse practices that Catholic doctrine considers morally wrong.”
The 41-page suit said, “The government has not shown a compelling need to force Notre Dame to be part of a vehicle that inevitably encourages and counsels members of a Catholic community to use these products and procedures at issue, in effect normalizing them.”
In a Dec. 3 statement, Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said he thought both the school and the government acted in “good faith” in negotiations, but “we have concluded, however, the government’s accommodations would require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching and to create the impression that the university cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission.”
In a separate statement, also issued Dec. 3, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend said: “I am happy that Notre Dame remains in strong solidarity with the diocese and U.S. bishops in defending our religious liberty.”