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Students petition against religious liberty lawsuit

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, August 2, 2012

Notre Dame students are circulating a petition opposing the University’s decision to file a religious liberty lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The mandate, part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, requires employers to provide contraceptive services in their minimum health insurance plans.

The University filed its religious liberty lawsuit against the mandate in May. The suit states that the federal mandate is irreconcilable with the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other laws protecting religious freedom.

The petition, which includes signatures from approximately 140 students as of this week, faculty, staff and alumni, originated as a personal letter to University President Fr. John Jenkins from philosophy graduate student Kathryn Pogin. It argues for the University’s compliance with the mandate based on philosophical and legal principles.

The petition organizers plan to submit the document to University administration at the end of the summer to allow students who return to campus to consider the petition’s ideas before it is submitted, Pogin said. The group did notify Jenkins of the petition’s circulation.

“We want it to be a starting point for dialogue and discussion,” she said. “We didn’t want it to be antagonistic toward the administration or Fr. Jenkins.”

Pogin said the petition focuses on three main issues arising from the University’s lawsuit, which states that the federal mandate is irreconcilable with the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other laws protecting religious freedom.

“First of all, it’s not clear to us that the University couldn’t comply with the mandate without remaining within Catholic practice,” she said. “In addition, even if there is a genuine conflict with freedom of religion, which we’re not convinced there is, at least with respect to contraceptives, we think the legal argument favors compliance with the mandate.”

Another point of concern for signatories of the petition is the current level of campus services available to families, Pogin said.

“Further, we believe Notre Dame would better serve its Catholic mission by focusing on improving campus services for families rather than embroiling itself in a legal challenge,” the petition states.

The petition points out that “many, if not all, graduate students at Notre Dame who have children insure them through the state of Indiana because they cannot afford the university-provided healthcare,” which Pogin said is a serious issue that deserves greater attention from Notre Dame.

“[The lack of affordable health coverage] is actually more of a problem than we outlined in the petition because state health programs are not available to international students, so some international students’ dependents go uninsured,” she said. “We think that’s a moral issue and an issue of Catholic identity.”

Pogin said such issues of Catholic identity outside of the use of contraceptives have been inadequately addressed in the University’s lawsuit.

“We think there are other issues of Catholic identity on campus that haven’t been addressed yet,” she said. “There’s nothing totally inconsistent about pursuing the suit and addressing the other things, but our point is that the University hasn’t addressed the other things in an adequate way yet and [Notre Dame] would better focus its energy on paying attention to those things.”

University Spokesman Dennis Brown said the federal government is expected to respond to Notre Dame’s lawsuit next week.

“The Department of Justice is expected to file a motion Aug. 6 to dismiss our lawsuit on the contention that the issue isn’t ‘ripe’ for adjudication until the regulations are finalized,” Brown said in an email. “Our response will be due 28 days later.”

Brown also said Jenkins responded to a letter from students about the lawsuit with his own letter July 27.

Managing Editor Megan Doyle contributed to this report.