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Executive order missing? No religious freedom action from Trump yet


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Talk of President Donald Trump possibly signing an executive order on religious freedom, which drew both criticism and praise, has been replaced with discussion about what happened to it and what a final version, if there is one, will look like. Read more »

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5th Circuit says HHS accommodation on mandate not a burden on religion


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The religious rights of faith-based entities — including the dioceses of Fort Worth and Beaumont, Texas, and the University of Dallas — are not substantially burdened by the process to receive an accommodation from the federal government to avoid participating in a health care mandate for contraceptive coverage, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled June 22.       Read more »

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Director of Priests for Life calls ruling in its HHS suit ‘wrong’; says group won’t obey mandate


WASHINGTON — Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said a federal appeals court that ruled against his organization in its challenge to the federal contraceptive mandate “is wrong, and we will not obey the mandate.”

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued the unanimous decision Nov. 14.

“The court stated, ‘We conclude that the challenged regulations do not impose a substantial burden on plaintiffs’ religious exercise,’” Father Pavone said. “After studying the decision further, we will release more commentary.”

Priests for Life argued that the Obama administration’s procedure that nonexempt religious employers must follow to opt out of the contraceptive mandate violates the organization’s religious rights.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requires nearly all employers to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs for all employees in company health plans. It includes a narrow exemption for religious employers that fit certain criteria.

To opt out, nonexempt religious employers must follow a procedure to inform the government of its religious objections to the mandated coverage. The government in turn informs a third party, such as the employer’s insurer or the administrator of its plan, that it must provide the coverage at no cost to the employee.

Previously these employers had been required to fill out a self-certification form, known as EBSA Form 700, to state their objection to providing the coverage and to direct a third party, usually the manager of an employer’s health plan, to provide the contested coverage.

Many religious employers that have sued over the mandate argue that even filling out Form 700 makes them complicit in providing coverage they find objectionable.

So last August, the Obama administration issued a new procedure whereby these employers must advise HHS in writing of their religious objections.

HHS itself will then notify the insurer for a health plan, or the Department of Labor will notify the third-party administrator for a self-insured plan, that the organization objects to providing contraception coverage. The insurer or third-party administrator must provide the coverage at no cost to the employee.

The District of Columbia circuit court ruled on an appeal filed by Priests for Life, after the same court dismissed the group’s lawsuit last December.

Judge Cornelia Pillard wrote the Nov. 14 decision, calling the “bit of paperwork” required to opt out of the mandate “straightforward and minimal.”

“Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms,” she added.

Employers that do not comply with the mandate face fines of $1,000 a day per enrollee in their health plan.


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Court rules against temporary injunction on mandate for Catholic groups


LANSING, Mich. (CNS) — The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a temporary injunction that had stopped enforcement of the federal contraceptive mandate against several Catholic entities in Michigan and Tennessee while they pursued further appeals of the mandate.

The Catholic plaintiffs include the Michigan Catholic Conference, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Catholic Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, Catholic Charities of Tennessee, and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation. Read more »

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Court denies Notre Dame injunction on HHS mandate

February 25th, 2014 Posted in National News Tags: , , ,


CHICAGO — The University of Notre Dame must allow free coverage of contraceptives as required by the federal health care law despite its moral objections to doing so, said a panel of the 7th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in a late Feb. 21 ruling that denied the university an injunction against enforcement of the mandate.

The decision was handed down in the university’s appeal of a Dec. 20 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana denying it a preliminary injunction. Notre Dame then sought to obtain emergency relief from the 7th Circuit before the Jan. 1 deadline for the mandate to take effect and was denied.

In its lawsuit, Notre Dame argued that the mandate’s purpose “is to discriminate against religious institutions and organizations that oppose abortion and contraception.”

Judge Richard Posner, joined by Judge David Hamilton, wrote the majority opinion in the 2-1 ruling, saying the university has the option of following a so-called accommodation in the mandate that says employers who object to the coverage on moral grounds can fill out a form and direct a third party to provide the coverage to their employees.

In a brief statement Feb. 24, Notre Dame spokesman Paul J. Browne said: “Our concern remains that if government is allowed to entangle a religious institution of higher education like Notre Dame in one area contrary to conscience, it’s given license to do so in others.”

“Our lawyers are reviewing the 7th Circuit ruling and contemplating next steps,” he said.

Notre Dame and other Catholic entities that have brought dozens of lawsuits challenging the mandate on moral grounds say this third-party accommodation still does not solve their problem over being involved in providing coverage they reject for moral reasons.

In his ruling, Posner wrote: “If the government is entitled to require that female contraceptives be provided to women free of charge, we have trouble understanding how signing the form that declares Notre Dame’s authorized refusal to pay for contraceptives for its students or staff, and mailing the authorization document to those companies, which under federal law are obligated to pick up the tab, could be thought to ‘trigger’ the provision of female contraceptives.”

The mandate, under rules issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, requires nearly all employers to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs to their employees in their company health plan. It includes a narrow exemption for some religious employers that fit certain criteria.

Religious employers who are not exempt can comply with the third-party accommodation.

In his dissent, Judge Joel Flaum said it was “clear that if Notre Dame were forced to pay for contraceptive coverage against its religious beliefs or else incur significant monetary penalties, this would be a substantial burden. In the university’s eyes, this form’s ‘purpose and effect,’ evident from the face of the regulations, is to accomplish what the organization finds religiously forbidden and protests.”

The deadline for employers to comply with the mandate was Jan. 1 or they would face thousands of dollars in daily fines.

On Jan. 2, according to the National Catholic Register, Notre Dame told faculty and staff that while its appeal of the mandate worked its way through the courts, a third-party administrator would notify them about access to contraceptives and other mandated non-objectionable services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings.

Flaum in his dissent noted that the form a nonexempt employer must use to direct a third-party administrator to provide the coverage “flatly states that it is ‘an instrument under which the plan is operated.’ Having to submit the (form), Notre Dame maintains, makes it ‘complicit in a grave moral wrong’ by involving it with a system that delivers contraceptive products and services to its employees and students.”


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Analysis: Organizations weigh in on how Supreme Court should handle HHS mandate

February 20th, 2014 Posted in Uncategorized Tags: , ,


Catholic News Service

After ruling in 2012 that certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act stand up to constitutional scrutiny, the Supreme Court’s next dip into legal challenges to the law focuses on whether for-profit secular employers can claim religious rights protections from some provisions.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, talks with Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington July 2. The two are part of a diverse group of religious leaders urging the U.S. government to “expand conscience protections” in its Health and Human Services mandate that requires almost all employers to provide coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

In addition to the standard briefs and replies filed by the two sides in each of the cases, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider the arguments raised by hundreds of organizations represented in “amicus” or friend-of-the-court briefs filed in advance of the court’s March 25 oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.

The court is jointly hearing the cases, in which two federal appeals courts issued opposite rulings about the companies’ claims to a religious rights-based exemption from having to provide coverage for various forms of contraception in employee health insurance. The court is under no obligation to consider “amicus” briefs, but it typically does, and sometimes cites them in rulings.

There’s been a great deal of attention within the Catholic Church, in particular, to whether church-affiliated institutions may be exempted from the contraceptive provisions, widely described as a mandate. But the cases being heard in March deal only with how that mandate applies to for-profit, secular employers.

Cases over how the mandate is applied to nonprofit religious institutions, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, are still being addressed by lower courts and are unlikely to reach the Supreme Court before its next term.

Especially in comparison to the interest in lawsuits brought by dioceses, religious orders and church-run universities, there may be less public awareness of the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases than there was of the Supreme Court’s highly publicized last venture into the ACA in 2012 primarily over the requirement that individuals buy health insurance. But the advocates for either side in the current cases are no less vehement that the outcome is crucial to how the 2010 health care law works, or doesn’t.

Among legal issues the briefs raise are questions based on past rulings about the circumstances under which an employer may claim faith-based exemption from various kinds of laws; about whether the federal government is trying to define religious beliefs and about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law passed by Congress in an effort to reverse what was perceived as a rollback of Free Exercise rights in a 1990 Supreme Court ruling.

One key Supreme Court case raised in many of the amicus briefs on both sides is U.S. v. Lee, a 1982 unanimous ruling which said an Amish employer could not be exempted from paying Social Security taxes for employees of his for-profit business.

The court found that “while there is a conflict between the Amish faith and the obligations imposed by the Social Security system, not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional,” the court said. “The court may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest.”

Amicus briefs supporting the government’s position that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods should not be exempted argue, for example, that “the ACA does not require corporations to administer or use the contraceptive methods to which they object, nor does it require them to adhere to, affirm or abandon a particular belief,” said a brief on behalf of 91 members of Congress.

It quoted from Lee: “Every person cannot be shielded from all the burdens incident to exercising every aspect of the right to practice religious beliefs.”

On the other side, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argued that applying Lee to the companies should mean “the court should accept at face value Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga’s earnest belief that they cannot in good conscience comply with the mandate. But instead of accepting that representation, the government would have this court conduct its own analysis of whether compliance with the mandate should be taken to violate those convictions.

“In other words, rather than analyzing whether the mandate puts substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to abandon their religious opposition to providing the mandated coverage, the government would have this court evaluate whether compliance with the mandate amounts to a substantial violation of their religious beliefs.”

The dozens of amicus briefs filed on either side include sometimes unusual combinations of religious institutions, civil rights organizations, politicians, academics and secular employers.

For instance, the partners in one brief supporting the for-profit employers were Drury Hotels, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Christian Medical Association and groups of pro-life nurses and doctors. In another, Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution, teamed up with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Crescent Foods and the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, a Santeria church that brought a successful religious rights lawsuit against the city of Hialeah, Fla., over its law prohibiting animal sacrifices.

Among institutions filing solo briefs in support of the employers were the USCCB, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Medical Association, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Family Research Council.

Other joint briefs supporting the companies were filed by: 67 Catholic theologians and ethicists; several religion-related publishers and a coalition that includes the American Bible Society, the Anglican Church in North America, Prison Fellowship Ministries and the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On the other side, one large-coalition brief was submitted on behalf of two dozen participating organizations including several Jewish institutions; Dignity USA and New Ways Ministry, both of which minister to gays and lesbians; the Hindu American Foundation; Catholics for Choice; the Women’s Ordination Conference and the Disciples of Christ Church.

A brief filed on behalf of 19 Democratic or independent senators in support of the government’s position was countered by one filed for four Republican senators on the other side. Another represented 20 church-state scholars who framed the cases in terms of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

Also filing in support of the government was a group including the Freedom From Religion Foundation; Bishopaccountability.org and several other groups whose work focuses on support for survivors of sexual abuse.


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Viewpoint — Little Sisters of the Poor won’t be cheerleaders for the sexual revolution


Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius – the title of the lawsuit is chilling. A self-sacrificing order of Catholic nuns is involved in a lawsuit against the nominally Catholic Secretary of Health and Human Services. A lot had to change in America to bring about such an absurd conflict.

The lawsuit, as most of us know, has to do with the insistence of the Little Sisters that they are a religious organization and therefore should be excused from the HHS regulation requiring that their health insurance plans provide coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures without copayment or deductible. This mandate is a regulation imposed by Sebelius under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It is not part of the law, as news reports sometimes indicate.  The conflict could be ended with the stroke of a pen, but in spite of the unseemly spectacle of this lawsuit and dozens like it, the administration holds firm.

There are certainly political reasons for the administration’s position, but politics is downstream from culture, as the saying goes. Political systems and the governments tend to reflect the most widely held values in the culture. And that’s why the Little Sisters of the Poor, known and loved in this diocese, are in hot water with the government. They dare to swim upstream against the culture.

For decades now the culture has embraced the sexual revolution with its conviction that no sexual activity or arrangement is ever intrinsically wrong, so long as those involved are consenting adults (or adolescents for that matter).

What Pope Benedict before his election in 2005 called the “dictatorship of relativism” is on full display here. Nothing is good or bad in itself; whatever the self really wants it is entitled to have. And the uninhibited modern self demands unlimited access to safe sex  (The idea of “safe sex” is a magnificent bit of male chauvinism, but that’s for another day.)

The sexual revolution depends on reliable contraception. Otherwise babies might interfere. The promise of reliable contraception was fundamental in creating the notion that sex, marriage and reproduction could and should be separated.  But since people and contraception tend to be unreliable, the sexual revolution also requires abortion as a back-up to escape from consequences and responsibility.

The sexual revolution has brought catastrophe in its wake. Out of wedlock births have passed the 40 percent mark in America. Fatherless children, especially boys, face a much higher risk of failure, violence and criminality, while their sisters grow up with no idea of a husband and father.

Marriage rates decline, and in spite of the number of out of wedlock births the birthrate sinks below the replacement level putting the social safety net at risk. Sexually transmitted diseases proliferate.

Marriage itself is redefined as a contract between adults who happen to be in love, and children become a mere accessory, fine but only if they are necessary for adult happiness. Men are freed from any sense of obligation to the women they have sex with, and many are thereby rendered perpetually adolescent.

And polls show female unhappiness at historically high levels. The hook–up culture is fueled by drugs and alcohol, and the news media have finally noticed that rape on campus may be as common as in the military. There is little to indicate that people who are freed from sexual restraint are in any way happier or that society is better off as a result. The sexual revolution is a false god, and all false gods are murderous.

In few areas is the Catholic Church more countercultural than in this one. The beautiful vision of marriage as permanent, exclusive, and open to new life is foreign to the mindset of the sexual revolution. Our belief that marriage is built into nature for human good looks quaint. The idea that marriage is sacramental, that it brings grace and aids us on the way to salvation, is incomprehensible.

Powerful forces find this Christian understanding of marriage and sex not just odd but intolerable. For them not even the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion may be allowed to slow down the sexual revolution.

The lack of free birth control would inhibit the imperial self’s unalienable right to sex. Therefore, the Little Sisters of the Poor must pay. Never mind that the pill is cheap. Never mind that all sorts of necessary medications are not mandated in the same way, like insulin or antibiotics.

The HHS mandate makes no sense apart from the sexual revolution. The medications involved are legal, inexpensive, widely available and often subsidized by the government. Sandra Fluke, the cover girl for the mandate, manages to pay $50,000 a year in tuition at Georgetown Law School, but her need for free contraception is so absolute that the First Amendment must yield to it.  She must get her way, for then the sexual revolution is cheered and the Little Sisters are forced to cheer along.

It’s the cheering that the opposition demands. The church has no stake in controlling private behavior. In the words of Blessed John Paul II the church never imposes but only proposes. The church has learned to live and indeed to thrive in an open, pluralistic culture. And even in the Middle Ages and early modern era when the church sometimes did impose, it was never imagined that everything immoral should be illegal. We neither impose nor propose anything of the sort today. We simply propose the beauty of marriage.

Why, then, can the sexual revolutionaries not leave us, and the Little Sisters, alone?  The answer is quite clear. They demand to be cheered and enabled because at some level they are uncertain.

The culture is desperately afraid that it might be wrong. Promiscuity may be widely celebrated and giggled about, but there is a deep insecurity abroad, for God never meant sex to be safe and it cannot be domesticated by education and technology. The audacity of those stubborn nuns challenges the status quo. And the very existence of the Catholic Church threatens the dictatorship of relativism with the possibility of truth.

But if we can be forced to cooperate, if we can be co-opted, if we can be pushed into silence, then the hazard of the truth is removed. To live and let live is not enough.  Tolerance is not enough. If that were the case, the HHS mandate would never have been considered. Approval, endorsement and cheering are required.

There is a scarcely concealed secularist totalitarianism behind all this. Our opponents do not seek liberty; they already have it. They want control. Religion, conscience, and dissent and disrupt the smooth movement away from the noble American tradition of ordered liberty toward managed libertinism.

It’s not a matter of a few dollars more going to a health insurance plan. What is at stake in the Little Sisters’ courageous stand and that of the many other plaintiffs, Catholic and Protestant, is freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of association and freedom of conscience. What is at stake is the established American commitment that some things are outside the power of the state and that it’s better for everyone that they are.

On that the church too has always insisted.  Early Christians died rather than place a pinch of incense on the altar before the icon of the emperor. The same principle is at play today. God bless the Little Sisters for their refusal to offer incense to anyone but God.  They deserve our ardent support. They deserve our prayers. And they deserve from us the energy and the courage to recognize what is at stake.

Father Klein is director of Pro-Life Activities for the Diocese of Wilmington.

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Court continues injunction protecting Little Sisters from HHS mandate – updated


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court Jan. 24 issued a three-sentence order affirming, for the time being, an injunction blocking enforcement against the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Christian Brothers benefits organization of a mandate to provide contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance.

The order released late in the afternoon affirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Dec. 31 order in the case. It temporarily blocks the federal government from requiring the Denver-based sisters and their co-plaintiffs at Christian Brothers Services from having to meet that requirement of the Affordable Care Act.

The attorney for the Little Sisters and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the order.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., speaking in his capacity as president of the USCCB, said in a statement released Jan. 25 that the bishops “welcome the court’s protection of ministries like the Little Sisters, whose vital work is at the heart of what it means to be Catholic.”

The Supreme Court’s order said: “If the employer applicants inform the secretary of Health and Human Services in writing that they are nonprofit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and have religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services, the respondents are enjoined from enforcing against the applicants the challenged provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and related regulations pending final disposition of the appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.”

The requirement to provide coverage for contraceptives in employee health insurance does have an accommodation, or waiver, the government says would keep certain religious organizations from having to comply with the mandate.

A statement from Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, which represents the Little Sisters, said they are “delighted that the Supreme Court has issued this order protecting the Little Sisters.”

The statement said the order means the sisters and the other organizations whose benefits are managed by Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Benefits Trust “must simply inform HHS of their religious identity and objections.”

The statement added that the suit is a class-action case on behalf of more than 400 Catholic organizations whose benefits are managed by the Christian Brothers.

The Little Sisters and Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Benefits Trust, which manages the religious order’s benefits, object to being required to justify to the government that they should be entitled to an exemption from the mandate. They argue that filling out the paperwork for a waiver that would instruct a third party to provide the contraceptive coverage amounts to them being part of the mechanism for providing abortion and other morally objectionable types of coverage.

“To meet the condition for injunction pending appeal, applicants need not use the form prescribed by the government and need not send copies to third-party administrators,” the order said.

The court’s order specified that the injunction “should not be construed as an expression of the court’s views on the merits” of the religious groups’ legal claims.



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On abortion and U.S. birth control mandate, Vatican puts words in context


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — On successive days in mid-January, Pope Francis and his top collaborator at the Vatican made public statements that provided a lesson in Franciscan contextualization of highly loaded moral issues.

Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, right, meets with his U.S. counterpoint, John Kerry, at the Vatican Jan. 14. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, pool)

On Jan. 13, the pope told the Vatican diplomatic corps that he found it “horrifying just to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.”

That was strong language, especially for a pope who has spoken relatively little about abortion. His words had even more impact given the setting: not before a group of clergy, nuns or Catholic doctors, but in a room full of ambassadors, almost all of them from countries where abortion is legal in at least some cases.

Pope Francis’ words were even more significant because of the kind of speech in which they occurred. Popes normally use talks to diplomats to survey crises and conflicts around the globe and urge the pursuit of peace, which is what Pope Francis for the most part did. In such a context, references to anything other than geopolitics are bound to stand out.

More specifically, Pope Francis’ mention of abortion came in the middle of a paragraph about threats to human dignity such as hunger and human trafficking, both issues about which the pope has spoken more often, as consistent with the priority he has set on helping the world’s poor. The appearance of abortion in that company suggests the defense of unborn life is at the heart of Pope Francis’ agenda.

The next day came a statement no less striking or significant in its implications for Vatican policy, even though it did not come from the pope himself.

Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, who as secretary of state is considered the highest Vatican official, met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Jan. 14 for a conversation that lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

Peace in the Middle East, and particularly Syria, had been expected to be Topic A. Kerry was stopping in Rome between meetings in Paris and Kuwait devoted to the crisis in Syria. And Pope Francis has made ending the civil war in Syria a major focus, among other ways by leading a prayer vigil last September that drew 100,000 people to St. Peter’s Square.

So it was no surprise when the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, reported that the two secretaries of state had discussed common concerns on Syria, as well as Israel and Palestine, and other questions of foreign policy. The attention-grabbing anomaly in his account of the diplomats’ talk was a U.S. domestic issue.

Father Lombardi said the two men “also discussed the United States, especially the themes that have been the object of concern and discussion by the U.S. bishops: the health care reform and its relationship to guarantees of religious freedom.”

That was evidently a reference to the contraceptive mandate: the Obama administration’s requirement that nearly all health insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic universities and agencies, cover sterilizations, contraceptives and some abortion-inducing drugs, all of which are forbidden by the church’s moral teaching.

While legal challenges to the mandate are making their way through the U.S. courts, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the bishops’ conference, asked President Barack Obama Dec. 31 to exempt from fines religious institutions who believe funding contraception and sterilization violate their religious principles.

If there were any doubts about the Vatican’s support for the bishops’ stand, they were dispelled by Cardinal-designate Parolin’s decision to include the contraception mandate in a discussion of geopolitical priorities with Obama’s top diplomat, and then have the Vatican spokesman tell the press about it.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in a widely quoted interview published last September. “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”


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Pittsburgh, Erie dioceses win injunction against HHS mandate

November 25th, 2013 Posted in National News Tags: , , , ,


PITTSBURGH — A federal judge Nov. 21 granted the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses a preliminary injunction against the federal health care law’s contraceptive mandate, saying religious employers’ right to adhere to their moral objections to it outweighs a government decision to widen access to contraceptives.

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik said that “all who recognize the importance of religious liberty should be very pleased” with the ruling by Judge Arthur J. Schwab of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate as part of the health care law. It requires most religious and other employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacient drugs and devices even if the employer is morally opposed to such services. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

“Acknowledging that our beliefs are sincerely held, Judge Schwab found that the good works that the church provides in society are both essential and integral to who we are as believers,” the bishop said in a statement released the day of the ruling. “Judge Schwab refused to accept that religious freedom is solely the freedom to worship behind closed doors.”

In a statement issued in Washington, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he was “strongly encouraged by the court’s rejection of the government’s attempt to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship, as well as the court’s recognition that service to those in need is at the heart of our faith.”

“The court’s decision vindicates that approach and we fully expect more decisions like this to follow,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.

He pointed to the special message the bishops as a body issued Nov. 13 to reiterate their objections to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that most religious and other employers’ health plans include contraceptive coverage. The message also said the bishops remain “united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom.”

The message passed unanimously during an executive session held by the bishops during their annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.

In his 65-page opinion Schwab said the issue he was asked to decide was whether “the government will be permitted to sever the Catholic Church into two parts (i.e., worship and faith, and ‘good works’), in other words, whether the government will be successful in restricting the right to the free exercise of religion as set forth in the First Amendment to a right to worship only.”

He wrote that he could not understand why religious employers, such as Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, also a plaintiff in the case, “born from the same religious faith, and premised upon the same religious tenets and principles, and operate as extensions and embodiments of the church, but are not subsidiaries of a parent corporation, would not be treated the same as the church itself with respect to the free exercise of that religion.”

Without the preliminary injunction, the government would have begun levying fines Jan. 1 on the dioceses and related entities for noncompliance with the mandate.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate as part of the health care law. It requires most religious and other employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacient drugs and devices even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.

It includes an exemption for some religious employers that fit its criteria. The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.

There also is an accommodation for some employers to use a third party to pay for coverage they find objectionable, but Catholic entities that have brought the lawsuits say the accommodation still does not solve their problem over being involved in providing coverage they reject for moral reasons.

In his ruling Schwab said the “sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and the dignity of all persons are central tenets of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. … This belief necessarily prohibits providing, subsidizing, initiating or facilitating insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization services, contraceptives and related educational and counseling services.”

In a Nov. 22 statement Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico reiterated much of what Bishop Zubik and Archbishop Kurtz stated, emphasizing that Schwab recognized religious freedom is about more than worshipping at Mass on Sunday. “We live out our faith through charitable and educational outreach,” he said.

Bishop Persico said he was grateful he had the opportunity to exercise his right as a citizen. “We will now continue to pursue our rights as we seek a permanent injunction to avoid being forced to pay for services and procedures which violate the tenets of our faith,” he said.

Bishops Zubik and Persico thanked the Pittsburgh-based Jones Day law firm for handling the case for all the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.

The U.S. Catholic Church “has always supported access to health care coverage for everyone. The lawsuit does not call into question the Affordable Care Act itself. Our lawsuit brings to the courts our most serious objection to one aspect of the Affordable Care Act as imposed by HHS,” Bishop Zubik said in his statement.

In other legal action against the HHS mandate, Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., filed a new lawsuit Nov. 20.

The liberal arts college in Belmont, run by the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey, has opposed the contraception mandate since 2011, when it was the first Catholic entity to challenge it in court.

Last December the college scored a momentary victory when a federal appeals court ordered the Obama administration to rewrite the mandate to exempt religious organizations such as Belmont Abbey College. If the government did not satisfy the college’s objections, the court said, the college could refile its lawsuit.

Final rules were issued by HHS June 28. The college and other Catholic and religious employers said they still did not go far enough to accommodate their moral objections to complying with the mandate. Belmont Abbey College faces fines of more than $7 million next year if it does not comply with the requirement.


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