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Archdiocese of Washington opposes the government’s motion to dismiss HHS mandate lawsuit


Chieko Noguchi
[email protected]

Yesterday, the Archdiocese of Washington filed its opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) unprecedented mandate that dramatically redefines religious ministry and requires religious organizations to provide health insurance coverage for drugs and procedures in direct conflict with their religious beliefs.

Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Washington, along with 42 other Catholic organizations across the country filed legal challenges to the HHS mandate (including locally, Archbishop Carroll High School, Inc., Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc., the Consortium of Catholic Academies of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc., and The Catholic University of America) that requires religious employers to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization in violation not only of the their deeply held religious beliefs, but in violation of the First Amendment and federal law. Specifically, the suit stems from the mandate’s new definition of what constitutes a religious organization. Contrary to long-standing precedent, the law exempts from the mandate only those religious institutions that primarily serve and employ individuals of their own faith. Any other religious organizations, like Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and charities that serve all individuals regardless of their faith, do not themselves qualify as religious for purposes of the exemption.

For most employers, the HHS mandate went into effect on August 1. Hundreds of thousands of comments were submitted when the mandate was first proposed back in 2010, and despite repeated assurances by the administration that the concerns of religious employers would be addressed, the mandate, which is now law, has yet to be changed. Some organizations such as the Archdiocese of Washington were given an additional year to comply, but the impact of the mandate will be so severe that the archdiocese and other Catholic organizations are being forced to consider the impossible choices the government has given us:

  • Continue to offer health insurance to our employees and their dependents, except coverage for drugs and procedures that violate our religious beliefs (as we have always been permitted to do under the law until now).
    • If so, the Government could force us to pay a penalty of $100 a day per covered individual (employees and dependents). With about 4,000 people currently enjoying excellent archdiocesan health care coverage, the archdiocese could incur devastating penalties as high as nearly $145 million per year, simply for practicing our faith.
  • Drop health insurance benefits for archdiocesan employees and their dependents altogether, and face a potential fine of more than $4 million per year in fines for the privilege of practicing our faith.
    • This option would leave many employees and their families uninsured or underinsured with little time to adjust and find affordable, quality alternatives.

Either scenario is unthinkable, and planning for such action is itself a grave burden, but in either case the mandate’s impact would be so severe that the archdiocese must begin to prepare now. Ignoring the burdens that the mandate has already placed on the archdiocese, the government contends that the archdiocese has not yet suffered any injury sufficient to confer legal standing to challenge the mandate, and that the administration’s expressions of intent to amend the mandate make the case “unripe” for review. But the administration’s promises are not the law – only the mandate is.

More important than the mandate’s financial burden, though, is the blow it strikes to the fundamental issue of religious freedom. The Constitution allows for the full exercise of faith in the public square by ministries that translate belief into action, serving millions of people every day.

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The Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 600,000 Catholics living in Washington, DC, and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

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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