Michigan Catholic Conference challenges HHS mandate with lawsuit

Suit among dozens of others filed Monday alleging religious liberty violation

DETROIT — The Michigan Catholic Conference has filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court challenging the constitutionality of a mandate of the federal
Department of Health and Human Services that forces many faith-based employers to provide health insurance coverage for practices that violate Catholic teaching.


The mandate, which requires employers to provide services such as abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception, is also being challenged by several dozen other Catholic groups across the country in similar lawsuits filed Monday.

The Michigan Catholic Conference’s nine-count lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio — where co-plaintiff Franciscan University of Steubenville is located — alleges violations of the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses, as well as the federal Administrative Procedures Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Michigan Catholic Conference is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan and is chaired by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron. Its board includes the bishops of all seven of the state’s dioceses, five laypersons, a religious sister and a diocesan priest.

Archbishop Vigneron, in a video statement released on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s website Monday, confirmed that the decision to bring litigation was unanimous by the MCC board of directors.

“The Catholic Church, other institutions, we tried a lot of things,” the archbishop said. “We’ve asked the executive to rethink this matter, we’ve engaged in dialogue with the administration, we’ve gone to the Congress — asked for legislative relief. And it seems then the logic is to go to the judges and say this is a constitutional matter.”

The MCC’s lawsuit names as defendants Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their respective agencies. All the lawsuits against the HHS mandate filed Monday, including the MCC’s, are being represented by the law firm of Jones Day, which has operations worldwide and offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Because the plaintiffs are nonprofit organizations, the law firm is filing the suit on a pro bono basis – meaning the costs for individual dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Detroit, will be minimal and cover only administrative expenses such as in providing documents and communication, the archbishop said.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit, MCC President and CEO Paul Long said the issue is a serious one that threatens deeply held religious freedoms.

“The HHS mandate represents one of the most egregious attacks on religious liberty in the history of the Republic,” Long said. “Never before has the federal government sought to coerce religious institutions into choosing between acting contrary to their conscience or paying a substantial and perhaps even crippling penalty for non-compliance.”

Such penalties could fine employers who do not comply with the mandate as much as $100 per day per employee, previous news reports have indicated.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the broader Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — sometime in June, Archbishop Vigneron said it wouldn’t be prudent to wait for that decision before pursuing litigation against the HHS mandate. The mandate is scheduled to go into effect for some groups as early as Aug. 1.

The archbishop also said it was the responsibility of the Michigan Catholic Conference not to wait for others to act. “I don’t like having other people fight my battles if we need to do our part,” he said.

Although some Catholic and non-Catholic organizations have launched lawsuits against the HHS mandate, until now, no Catholic diocese or archdiocese had done so. Although the effort to launch several lawsuits at the same time was facilitated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, each plaintiff’s decision to sue was made independently based on their own circumstances, according to a statement from the USCCB — a point reiterated by the Michigan Catholic Conference.

The Michigan Catholic Conference is unique, Archbishop Vigneron said, because the MCC is self-insured as the provider of health care for thousands of workers employed by Catholic groups throughout the state. It’s unclear whether even the Obama administration’s proposed accommodation — which the Church has rejected as not strong enough — would exempt such institutions, he said.

“I’ve heard secondhand that in conferences with people in Health and Human Services, they didn’t even imagine there was such a reality (as self-insured Catholic organizations). So we need to go to the court and say ‘Here we are, a Church institution, we are the provider of health care, and the laws have to be written to protect our consciences at this level as well.’

“We’ve got a very particular case to make,” the archbishop said, adding also that the administration’s accommodation “doesn’t work because it’s not the law.”

Long stressed that the issue wasn’t about a right to access abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization or contraception, but about needlessly forcing those who morally object to pay for them. “Those services are freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the government itself from making them more widely available,” he said.

The bishops also rejected the argument that statistics showing a large percentage of Catholics using artificial birth control justifies the mandate. Marquette Bishop Alexander Sample, in a video statement on the Diocese of Marquette’s website, called such flawed reasoning a “red herring.”

Whether or not the statistics are accurate, Archbishop Vigneron said, “the point is that’s not how in the Catholic Church we decide what are the beliefs according to which we’re trying to live. And in fact, it’s not about contraception. It’s about the right of the Catholic Church to determine her way of life and for us to be able to live according to our consciences here in the United States.

“The idea that somehow we’re behind the times, that’s already somebody else’s judgment. Why should they be able to impose that on us?”

What was most concerning, the archbishop said, was the notion of the government defining independently what constitutes a religious organization and the scope of the Church’s mission. According to the government’s definition, for a religious organization to be exempt from the mandate, it must be primarily concerned with teaching religious values and serve and employ primarily those who share the religion’s tenants.

“We provide services to people who are not Catholic, and we do that without the aim of trying to make them Catholic,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “I would never want to see the government put us in a narrow box that would prevent us from serving our neighbors.

“That’s abhorrent,” he added. “This is why we’re claiming we have a constitutional claim. That would certainly entangle the government in the affairs of religion and in a way that’s never happened before. This is all new. There’s no reason for the government to have taken us down this road.”