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Cardinal Wuerl: Defending Our First Freedom In Court

Dear Friends,

This morning, the Archdiocese of Washington filed a lawsuit to challenge the mandate, recently issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, that fundamentally redefines the nation’s long-standing definition of religious ministry and requires our religious organizations to provide their employees with coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs. Just as our faith compels us to uphold the liberty and dignity of others, so too, we must defend our own.

Joining the archdiocese in this local lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, are three of our related corporations: Archbishop Carroll High School, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Consortium of Catholic Academies. We are joined by the Catholic University of America in this action as well. Ours is one of twelve lawsuits filed today on behalf of 43 Catholic dioceses and organizations nationwide. The lawsuit in no way challenges either women’s established legal right to obtain and use contraception or the right of employers to provide coverage for it if they so choose. This lawsuit is about religious freedom.

The First Amendment enshrines in our nation’s Constitution the principle that religious organizations must be able to practice their faith free from government interference. As is generally the case with laws that may burden religious exercise, the mandate includes an exemption for religious organizations. And if the religious exemption in the mandate were reasonable, there would have been no need for this lawsuit-after all, we are indeed “religious” under any sensible definition. However, the mandate’s exemption is the narrowest ever adopted in federal law. Crucially, it does not include any organization that serves the general public. So under this mandate, our Catholic hospitals, schools, and social service programs, which serve all people, are not “religious enough” to be allowed to follow our Catholic beliefs.

For Catholics, the practice of faith has always required not just acts of worship, but also - necessarily - loving, charitable service to others. The understanding of charity as an essential religious activity goes back to the foundation of Christianity. Jesus Christ taught that obeying the first great commandment - loving God - must impel us to fulfill the second great commandment - loving our neighbor as ourselves. As put by the Apostle St. James: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-26). When asked what “love of neighbor” requires, Jesus commanded his followers to act like the Good Samaritan, explaining that Christian love must impel us to concrete action and must be universal - extending not just to those of our own kind, but also to outsiders and even enemies (Luke 10:25-36). And Jesus describes the Last Judgment, where he will say to those he has placed at his right hand.

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25: 31-46).

Thus, for two millennia, Roman Catholic entities have been engaged in charitable works - serving not just Catholics, but non-Catholics as well, with the understanding that these works are an essential part of Christian love and the practice of the Christian faith. As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has recently put it, “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Catholic Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”

Considering the dedicated efforts put into these good works, it is understandable to feel somewhat disheartened to see our government attempt to force the Church out of the public square. To be clear, that is the message that the HHS mandate conveys: our beliefs are not welcome. Those who have the temerity to hold onto their convictions will be fined.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, however, was not meant to protect merely the right to worship, but also the right to contribute the fruits of our faith to the common good. And until now, our government had chosen to honor that guarantee. Never before has the government contested that institutions like Archbishop Carroll High School or Catholic University are religious. Who would? But HHS’s conception of what constitutes the practice of religion is so narrow that even Mother Teresa would not have qualified. We know that such a law cannot stand. So above all we find cheer in the worthiness of our cause and in the love of our Creator, who imbued us with the very dignity and freedom that this lawsuit seeks to protect.

The Church did not choose this fight. It is HHS that has departed from longstanding practice and precedent to change the law; our response merely aims to preserve our existing rights. Although the Church would naturally remain open to good faith negotiations with the Administration, previous discussions yielded no reasonable compromise, and the Church has been given little reason to think further attempts would be fruitful. Bringing this claim to the courts ensures a fair and impartial hearing-one that we believe we will win. For up-to-date information on this matter, please visit

To further advance our support for religious liberty, I invite you to a special event to publicly witness to our faith and our freedom in the nation’s capital. On June 24, 2012, the Archdiocese of Washington will host a “Celebration of Freedom.” The rally will be held at the Smith Center of The George Washington University. Together with prayer and inspirational music, this rally will feature a video that highlights our heritage of religious freedom and the vital contributions of Catholics to building this nation. I hope you will join us for this wonderful event to celebrate our faith and, most importantly, to pray for our liberty. Your presence at this archdiocesan event will be testimony to how important it is to celebrate our faith and, most importantly, to pray for our liberty. This headline event is part of the Archdiocese of Washington’s response to the “Fortnight for Freedom” called for by the bishops of the United States. For more information and to register, please visit

In the coming weeks and months, may God remind us that the freedom of religion is only meaningful when we exercise it. And may God look with favor on our prayers for the success of this endeavor we have undertaken in His name.

With prayerful best wishes, I am

Faithfully in Christ,

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington

About Preserve Religious Freedom

This lawsuit is about religious freedom and our ability to serve the public, not about contraception. The Church maintains that the First Amendment protects the Catholic Church's ability to serve the public in accordance with its faith and to operate its religious institutions without government interference. The argument challenges the way the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines what is, and is not, a religious institution. By including an exemption at all, the government apparently agrees that, in keeping with decades of practice and precedent, religious institutions should not be compelled to purchase drugs or procedures that violate deeply held religious or moral beliefs.

But, the Administration's HHS mandate defines religious ministry so narrowly that religious schools, hospitals, and social services don't qualify as religious, and must therefore provide these drugs and procedures. This violates the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. It forces religious organizations to sacrifice their beliefs in order to be able to continue their mission of serving the public. Read more about the plaintiffs filing this lawsuit here.

Preserve Religious Freedom
c/o Archdiocese of Washington
P.O. Box 29260
Washington, DC 20017-0260

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