The Roman Catholic dioceses of Springfield and Joliet in Illinois have joined 41 other religious institutions filing simultaneous lawsuits that challenge the Obama administration's mandate that many religious employers have their health insurance cover the cost of birth control for employees.
Catholic Charities programs in both dioceses also filed simultaneous lawsuits in U.S. District Court on Monday.
At issue is a requirement that employers provide insurance plans that include contraception for women at no cost. Under the rules announced in January, religiously affiliated organizations such as Catholic schools, charities and hospitals would not be exempt from providing care that includes FDA-approved contraception and sterilization procedures.
Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the Joliet and Springfield organizations are the first of many Catholic entities across the state considering legal action, including universities and hospitals.
"We've talked to the administration about our concerns and tried to persuade them to amend the regulation that they proposed. It doesn't seem like they're willing to do that," Gilligan said. "We're engaged in the executive branch, legislative branch and now the judicial branch."
The 12 lawsuits filed jointly Monday accuse the U.S. Departments of Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services and their respective secretaries — Hilda Solis, Timothy Geithner and Kathleen Sebelius — of violating the Catholic Church's religious liberty by defining what qualifies as a religious institution and excluding schools, hospitals and charities from that definition.
"This lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference," said Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki, a trained lawyer and former auxiliary bishop in Chicago.
In February, the Obama administration offered a compromise that required insurance companies to cover the cost of any care, not religious employers.
But many of the plaintiffs in the suits filed Monday argue that accommodation doesn't help because they self-insure. The government is still finalizing a regulation for self-insured groups.
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George indicated that the archdiocese's absence from Monday's lawsuits didn't signal satisfaction with that accommodation or less concern about the issue. In previous remarks, he has said the government's efforts amount to a "theft of identity."
"The Archdiocese of Chicago is obviously deeply concerned about preserving the Catholic identity of Catholic educational, health care and social service organizations," George said in a statement. "The Archdiocese therefore entirely supports the actions of the Catholic dioceses and organizations that have brought suit against the Department of Health and Human Services for violating the heretofore constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom of Catholic institutions."
Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, also one of the 43 institutions to sue, said the lawsuits aren't intended to challenge the goals of the Affordable Care Act or to limit employees' access to the drugs or procedures.
"They are not asking the courts to endorse the plaintiffs' religious views, only to respect and accommodate them," Garnett said in a statement.
"Religious institutions are not seeking to control what their employees buy, use, or do in private; they are trying to avoid being conscripted by the government into acting in a way that would be inconsistent with their character, mission, and values."
The Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, also said the lawsuit was not a war on a woman's right to use contraception.
"Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives," Jenkins said.
"As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs. And we believe that, if the government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to serve as its agents."