WASHINGTON—The battle between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church hierarchy intensified as 43 groups — including the archdioceses of Washington and New York, and the University of Notre Dame — filed lawsuits Monday challenging a new rule that requires employers or their health insurers to offer birth-control coverage to workers.
The Catholic organizations, which filed the suits in federal courts across the country, argue that the federal mandate infringes on their religious freedom because it violates church teachings.
At issue is a rule in the Obama 2010 healthncare law requiring contraception coverage, including the morning-after pill, at no cost. Under rules released last August, churches, mosques and other places of worship would be exempt, but not religiously affiliated groups, such as hospitals and universities.
But that did not satisfy some prominent Catholic officials. In response, the administration softened the rule earlier this year so that religiously affiliated employers could shift the requirement for paying for contraceptive coverage onto their insurers.
Although some religious employers, such as the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, gave the eased rule a good reception, it still drew fire from the nation's Catholic bishops.
What's more, many plaintiffs in the suits argue that because they self-insure—meaning that they don't use insurance companies to assume the risk of paying their employees' health bills — even agreeing to the softened rule violates their religious beliefs. An administration official said the government wants to work with Catholic organizations on rules for self-insured organizations.
The mandate takes effect in August 2013.
"Time is running out, and our precious ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. In a prepared statement, he said they lawsuits reflect the diocese's frustration with the administration and Congress.
The lawsuits are the latest in a series of battles over contraception and women's health. In recent weeks, for example, Georgetown University was criticized by conservative Catholic officials for inviting Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, to give this year's commencement address.
The dioceses of Springfield and Joliet in Illinois, and their associated service and charitable organizations, are among those suing the government.
"This lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference," Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield said. "It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and fund services which violate their religious beliefs."
James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a liberal group, accused church leaders of posturing. "These lawsuits reflect a sad reality for American Catholics," he said. "The leadership of the Catholic Church is more interested in playing politics than it is in providing for the common good."
But John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, which joined in the lawsuits, said, "It's not a proper objection to say this is being politicized."
The churches and other institutions are focusing on the issue of religious freedom rather than women's access to medical services.
"Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: it is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the government from providing such services," the Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, wrote in an open letter.
"Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs."
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parent Federation of America, denounced the suits.
"Access to birth control is a critical health and economic concern for American women," she said. "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."
Ian Duncan writes for the Los Angeles Times.