Notre Dame Sues Over Birth Control Mandate

By TOM COYNE
|  Wednesday, Dec 4, 2013  |  Updated 1:27 AM EDT
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Notre Dame Sues Over Birth Control Mandate

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 The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday filed another lawsuit opposing portions of the federal health care overhaul that forces it to provide health insurance for students and employees that includes birth control, saying it contravenes the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The lawsuit claims the Affordable Health Care Act violates Notre Dame's freedom to practice religion without government interference. Under the law, employers must provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.

The lawsuit challenges a compromise offered by the Obama administration that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.

The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, said that wasn't enough.

"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," he said in a statement.

Notre Dame says in the lawsuit that its employee health plans are self-insured, covering about 4,600 employees and a total of about 11,000 people. Its student health plans cover about 2,600 students. The lawsuit says the health plans do not cover abortion-inducing products, contraceptives or sterilization.

"The U.S. government mandate, therefore, requires Notre Dame to do precisely what its sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit — pay for, facilitate access to, and/or become entangled in the provision of objectionable products and services or else incur crippling sanctions," the lawsuit says.

Notre Dame argues that the fines of $2,000 per employee if it eliminates its employee health plan, or $100 a day for each affected beneficiary if it refuses to provide or facilitate the coverage, would coerce it into violating its religious beliefs.

Daniel Conkle, an Indiana University professor of law and adjunct professor of religious studies, said Notre Dame's arguments are similar those in a case last month where a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the Pittsburgh and Erie Catholic dioceses a delay in complying with the federal mandates.

The Obama administration argues that the burden on the Catholic entities is minimal, Conkle said. Notre Dame and other Catholic groups say it's substantial.

Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, said the administration's accommodations "are sufficient to protect the Catholic conscience for administrators of these plans at Catholic universities." But he said the lawsuits were still needed.

Notre Dame argues that it is not seeking to impose its religious beliefs on others, but that it just wants to protect its right to the free exercise of its religion. The lawsuit argues that the government could pay for contraception through the expansion of its existing network of family planning clinics or by creating a broader exemption for religious employers.

Notre Dame filed a similar lawsuit in May 2012. Judge Robert Miller Jr. dismissed that case last December, saying the university wasn't facing any imminent penalty or restrictions because the federal government was reworking some of the coverage regulations.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to consider two cases in which business have objected to covering birth control for employees on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, won its case in lower courts, while Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Mennonite-owned company that employs 950 people in making wood cabinets, lost its claims in lower courts.

About 40 for-profit companies have requested an exemption from covering some or all forms of contraception.

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