The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



University sues federal government

Megan Doyle | Monday, May 21, 2012

Notre Dame filed a religious liberty lawsuit today challenging the constitutionality of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires employers to provide contraceptive services in their minimum health insurance packages. The mandate is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform legislation, passed in 2010.

The University filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. Court documents list the defendants as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Hilda Solid, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their respective departments.

University President Fr. John Jenkins defended the University’s position in a statement today, saying the University filed the lawsuit “with sober determination” to defend religious freedom.

“Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: it is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the government from providing such services,” Jenkins said. “As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs … This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives.”

Under the original plan announced Jan. 20, religious employers were exempt from providing contraceptives as part of the free preventive services in their minimum insurance package. However, the plan defined “religious employers” narrowly – while places of worship were exempt, religiously affiliated institutions, including universities like Notre Dame, were not. HHS granted these institutions one year to comply with the legislation’s specifications.

Obama announced a compromise in February that would shift responsibility for funding contraception from religiously affiliated institutions to insurance companies. The government will be responsible for defining which institutions are included in this compromise, which was unclear regarding self-insured companies. The University is self-insured.

The lawsuit states that the federal mandate is irreconcilable with the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other laws protecting religious freedom.

“For if we conceded that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions,” Jenkins said.

University Spokesman Dennis Brown said the government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit. Attempts to contact HHS representatives have not yet been successful.

Notre Dame’s lawsuit was one of 12 filed today against the federal government by 43 plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the regulation, a University press release stated.

“The other lawsuits were filed by dioceses and archdioceses in conjunction with Catholic schools and universities, Catholic health systems and Catholic charitable organizations,” Brown said.

The Associated Press reported the Archdioceses of Washington, New York and Michigan were among the plaintiffs, as well as the Catholic University of America.

Jenkins said the University would continue its discussions with Sebelius and other government officials to resolve the issue.

“We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others,” Jenkins said. “We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the University when those values conflict with our religious teachings.”