The Diocese of Greensburg in western Pennsylvania and Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt filed suit in a U.S. District Court May 27, claiming the regulation known as the HHS mandate infringes on the church’s religious liberty.
The regulation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, as part of the federal health care reform act, requires the diocese and affiliated organizations to offer health insurance coverage that violates core Catholic teachings against use of contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs.
The suit was filed on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, Bishop Brandt, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg and St. John the Evangelist Regional Catholic School in Uniontown, Pa.
“We have no choice but to take this action in order to protect our religious freedom to act in the public square without violating the beliefs of our Catholic faith,” Bishop Brandt said in a letter the day the suit was filed.
“This is not a matter of the Catholic Church’s trying to force its views on the rest of the country. To the contrary, it is a matter of the federal government trying to force its views on the church. In addition, this is not an attempt to overturn health care reform. The Catholic bishops have always supported access to health care coverage for everyone, as long as the conscience rights and religious freedom of people and groups including the Catholic Church are protected.”
Starting July 1, the HHS mandate will require the health insurance plans of the diocese’s elementary schools and Catholic Charities to cover services including abortifacient drugs, sterilization procedures, contraceptives and related education and counseling — or face crippling fines that could seriously jeopardize how they conduct their ministries.
The government has provided a very narrow exemption from the mandate for “houses of worship,” including churches and dioceses. However, the exemption is not available for equally religious institutions within the diocese, such as schools, universities, social service agencies and hospitals. The Greensburg Diocese argues that these institutions are integral to the Catholic mission and they deserve the same exemption as the diocese. As the U.S. bishops have said, the exemption amounts to an attempt by the government to “reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship.”
Rather than an exemption, the government has granted the service and education institutions an “accommodation” that does nothing to alleviate the bishops’ religious liberty concerns with the mandate. Under the accommodation, Catholic Charities and the Catholic elementary schools within the diocese must sign a self-certification form triggering the insurance company that administers their health plan to provide the objectionable coverage to their employees. The form also expressly designates the administrator to provide that coverage. Participating in this process and signing this form is material cooperation with evil and violates sincerely held Roman Catholic beliefs, the bishops have argued.
The law firm of Jones Day of Pittsburgh is representing the Greensburg plaintiffs pro bono. Jones Day has filed similar suits on behalf of dozens of Catholic entities around the country, including the Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, all on a pro bono basis.
The Diocese of Greensburg was not a party to the earlier suits because its health plan year began six months later than those in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie. Several earlier suits challenging a previous version of the HHS Mandate were dismissed until the plaintiffs faced imminent risk of harm by provisions of the Mandate.