WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Forty-three Catholic dioceses and organizations nationwide announced Monday that they are filing lawsuits in federal court seeking to invalidate, for reasons of religious liberty, the Obama administration's contraception mandate.
The action was first reported by the Catholic News Agency and EWTN News. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York was quoted as saying the joint legal action was "a compelling display of the unity of the Church in defense of religious liberty."
Twelve new lawsuits are being filed by 43 dioceses, hospitals, schools and church agencies in a dozen different jurisdictions across the country.
"We have tried negotiation with the (Obama) administration and legislation with the Congress - and we'll keep at it - but there's still no fix," said Cardinal Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishops' conference is not a party to the lawsuits, although several individual dioceses across the country are.
The plaintiffs are arguing that the federal mandate issued by the Obama administration Department of Health and Human Services - which requires employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs - violates their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. They say such a requirement violates their consciences and their faith.
The Archdioceses of New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C, are part of separate lawsuits against the measure, as are Catholic charities organizations in several dioceses and the Catholic publishing group Our Sunday Visitor. Other dioceses filing lawsuits include Rockville Centre, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Jackson and Biloxi, Miss.; Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.; and Joliet and Springfield, Ill. -- all in their respective districts of federal court.
"Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now," Cardinal Dolan said in the statement published by CNA/EWTN.
The mandate was controversial from the beginning and the criticism has caused dissension in the Democratic Party. It is estimated that at least 11 previous lawsuits have already been filed against the mandate by states, colleges, private employers and organizations throughout the U.S.
Several Catholic universities around the country are also filing lawsuits. Among them is the University of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., said the lawsuit was filed with regret. It was done with great gravity of purpose.
"We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others," he explained in an email to Notre Dame employees. "We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the University when those values conflict with our religious teachings."
Notre Dame argues that the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services mandate is unconstitutional. It asserts that the "components of the regulation are a violation of the religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal laws."
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. It names as defendants Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and their respective departments.
One of the other controversial aspects of the federal mandate - other than the requirement that Notre Dame and similar religious organizations provide in their insurance plans abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, which are contrary to Catholic teaching - is that it also authorizes the government to determine which organizations are sufficiently "religious" to warrant an exemption from the requirement.
"This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives," Jenkins said.
"For if we concede 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."
These 43 Catholic institutions join Ave Maria University and Eternal World Television Network, which filed lawsuits opposing the mandate in February.