WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Little Sisters of the Poor and a Catholic college are the latest Catholic entities to file a lawsuit or join an existing suit against the Department of Health and Human Services over its mandate that most religious employers’ health insurance plans cover contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Sept. 24 filed suit in Federal District Court in Denver on behalf of the order of women religious, saying it said does not “fall within the government’s narrow exemption for ‘religious employers'” despite the fact homes run by the sisters “perform a religious ministry of caring for the elderly poor.”

In Santa Paula, Calif., Thomas Aquinas College, a four-year Catholic liberal arts college, announced it joined in a lawsuit refiled Sept. 20 by the international firm of Jones Day on behalf of Archdiocese of Washington and The Catholic University of America.


Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 17 that a Michigan business must comply with the mandate even though the Catholic owner is morally opposed to such coverage.

In a statement released in Washington by the Becket Fund, Sister Loraine Marie, superior for one of the three Little Sisters of the Poor U.S. provinces, stated: “Like all of the Little Sisters, I have vowed to God and the Roman Catholic Church that I will treat all life as valuable, and I have dedicated my life to that work. We cannot violate our vows by participating in the government’s program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs.”

The HHS mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, includes an exemption for some religious employers that fit the criterion for a nonprofit organization as specified by certain sections of the federal Internal Revenue Code, namely those referring to “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor do not fit the exemption. The order would have to comply with an HHS accommodation for nonexempt religious entities and provide the contraceptive coverage through a third-party administrator who must ensure that payments for contraceptive services come from outside the objecting organization’s premiums.

“The sisters should obviously be exempted as ‘religious employers,’ but the government has refused to expand its definition,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket’s senior counsel and lead counsel for the order.

“These women just want to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates their work,” he said in a statement. “The money they collect should be used to care for the poor like it always has — and not to pay the IRS.”

Final rules issued by HHS June 28 extended the deadline for nonexempt religious employers to implement the mandate, setting it for Jan. 1, 2014. If those employers do not comply, they will face IRS fines.

With regard to the lawsuit joined by Thomas Aquinas College, Michael McLean, president, said in a statement that the school must “bear witness to its Catholic character by challenging measures which create a conflict between its duty to obey civil law and its duty to remain faithful to Catholic teaching.”

Jones Day refiled a suit dismissed by a federal judge in January, claiming it could not be decided until the Obama administration issued final rules on the mandate.

Now that those rules have been issued, many Catholic and other religious employers felt they still do not go far enough to accommodate their moral objections to complying with the mandate.

Jones Day argued the HHS mandate violates “plaintiffs’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by substantially burdening their free exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest.”

The suit seeks “a permanent injunction against enforcement” of the mandate.

In the suit filed by Autocam and Autocam Medical in Grand Rapids, the Catholic family that owns the two companies said the mandate violates their pro-life beliefs.

However, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons of the 6th Circuit, in writing the opinion for a three-judge panel, said the requirement does not violate the family’s religious convictions nor does it violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The court also dismissed the plaintiffs claim, saying the family does not have standing to challenge the mandate.

The 1993 law prohibits the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” and the measure is the least restrictive method of achieving that interest.

John Kennedy, CEO, said in a statement that he has “a right to live his faith and practice my beliefs freely, and being a good Christian to me means living my faith in all areas of my life, not just at church.”

Kennedy said that his companies — contract manufacturers for the automotive and medical industries — are now are faced with providing the coverage, dropping the health plan for their 661 employees, or refusing to provide the coverage and pay IRS fines. Paying the fines would put him out of business, he said.