Catholic Church leaders escalated their fight Monday against President Obama's health care plan, as dozens of the U.S. church's biggest archdioceses, universities and other institutions filed a torrent of lawsuits demanding the law's contraception mandate be struck down as violating constitutional protections of religious liberty.
A total of 43 groups, including the archdioceses of New York and Washington, the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University of America, and a number of dioceses' Catholic Charities agencies, filed challenges in 12 federal district courts arguing against the administration's requirement that most employer-offered health plans must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives.
The administration says it has provided adequate exemptions for churches, and that it has tried to reach a middle ground for religiously affiliated institutions such as schools and hospitals.
But Catholic leaders say the mandate still goes too far, charging that the final rule could still require employers to violate their consciences by paying for artificial contraception, which the church teaches is morally wrong.
"We have tried negotiations with the administration and legislation with the Congress — and we'll keep at it — but there's still no fix," Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said. "Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."
The fight comes as Catholic voters are being eyed as a critical voting bloc in November's elections — though analysts debate whether they are likely to side with Mr. Obama or with the church's leaders.
Democrats' health care law requires insurance plans to provide certain preventative health care services for free, though it wasn't until earlier this year that the administration announced contraceptives and some sterilization procedures would be among them.
Catholic bishops blasted that initial decision, and Mr. Obama quickly modified the rule to allow religious institutions such as hospitals and universities to opt out — but said insurers must provide the coverage directly to employees who want it.
Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops officially rejected the revised policy, saying religiously affiliated institutions, including self-insured church institutions, would still end up having to pay for services deemed immoral. The church teaches that knowingly providing financial support for an immoral act, even if required to do so by law, makes a person an accessory to it.
A half-dozen Catholic and evangelical colleges, seven states and several business owners had already filed lawsuits against the new rule.
Both sides are caught up in a battle over messaging, with the administration saying the issue is about giving women access to all sorts of health services, including contraception, while opponents insist it's about preserving religious liberties.
"We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others. We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the university when those values conflict with our religious teachings," said the Rev. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president who took considerable flak from within the church for inviting Mr. Obama to give the school's 2009 commencement address.
Two of the nation's biggest archdioceses — Los Angeles and Chicago — were conspicuously absent from the lawsuits.
While Los Angeles officials didn't respond to requests for comment, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said the archdiocese is still figuring its legal options, but "entirely supports" the actions of the other dioceses.
"The Archdiocese of Chicago is obviously deeply concerned about preserving the Catholic identity of Catholic educational, health care and social service organizations," he said.
All of the plaintiffs are represented by the law firm Jones Day. They include the dioceses of Dallas, Fort Worth, Rockville Centre on Long Island and Pittsburgh, all seven dioceses in the Michigan Catholic Conference, Franciscan University in Ohio and the publication Our Sunday Visitor.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuits filed Monday, instead providing comments made by Mr. Obama when he announced the extra exemption in February.
"The result will be that religious organizations won't have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly," Mr. Obama said at the time. "Let me repeat: These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius doubled down on the administration's stance last week, delivering an address at Georgetown University, a Catholic school, where she praised the health law but acknowledged the ongoing disputes.
"But it's through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a more perfect union," she told the students.
While Catholics have generally led the fight against the rule, they've attracted the support of many evangelical leaders who are opposed to the "ella" and Plan B contraceptives, which they claim are also abortion-inducing drugs, and agree with Catholics that the rule treads on religious freedom.
"We are all Catholic now," said Penney Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. "This is why the religious community stands together in the belief that this contraception, chemical abortion and sterilization mandate would force us to pay for something many of us believe is morally repugnant."
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