The Catholic contraception-mandate mega-lawsuit: A guide

The Week

Notre Dame and 42 other Catholic institutions sue the Obama administration, arguing that they're being forced to facilitate behavior they find "intrinsically immoral"

On Monday, 43 Catholic organizations filed 12 federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the Obama administration's recent mandate that most employer-provided health insurance cover birth control and sterilization. The plaintiffs include several dioceses, social services providers, and educational institutions, but the biggest surprise was the participation of the University of Notre Dame, one of America's top Catholic colleges. What's this mega-lawsuit about? Here, a brief guide:

Who exactly is participating in the lawsuit?
Along with Notre Dame, parties to the 12 suits include 13 dioceses — among them the archdioceses of New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis — Catholic University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and several Catholic schools and local Catholic Charities branches. Notable groups sitting the suit out are the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which tells Commonweal that its "concerns are addressed in the lawsuits that were filed," and the Catholic Health Association (CHA), which is still in negotiations with the Obama administration. 

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And what is the fight over?
There are at least two issues that have the Catholic institutions up in arms. First: Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities will have to include copay-free birth control in their health insurance offerings, in violation of the church's (widely ignored) ban on contraception. The U.S. Catholic bishops rejected the Obama compromise — insurance will pay for the birth control, not the institutions — because some groups self-insure, and the rest still have to "facilitate" activities they see as "intrinsically immoral." The second issue is the Obama administration's decision to treat Catholic institutions separately than parishes and dioceses, which are exempt from the mandate. 

What do the plaintiffs want?
The coordinated lawsuits ask federal courts to say that the contraception rules violate religious institutions' First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But some of the universities and all of the dioceses are already exempt, says Grant Gallicho at Commonweal. Why "sue now over a mandate that won't affect them and won't go into effect for another 15 months"? Obviously, says Elizabeth Scalia at Patheos, "they understand that, 'exempt' or not, 'accommodated' or not, the government is fundamentally overstepping its bounds with this mandate." This is about "religious freedom," and "that matters. A whole lot."

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Why file suit now?
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York says "time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now." That's "nonsense," says Commonweal's Gallicho. The hospitals and charities and universities have until August 2013 — "why sue before exhausting all other options?" Sadly, it seems that "many bishops seem to want this fight," says E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. It's "looking more and more like a direct intervention in this fall's elections," with Obama being unfairly painted as "an enemy of religious freedom."

Why did Notre Dame join?
The university's president, Fr. John Jenkins, gave the same reasons as the other plaintiffs, minus "the vitriol and hyperbole," says Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter. He insists this isn't about contraception, which many faculty and students "have made conscientious decisions to use," but about "the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission." It's also about deftly "playing political football," says NCR's Ken Briggs. Jenkins is taking steps to "win the cheers of bishops who remain resentful of the university's awarding of an honorary degree to President Obama in 2009."

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Will this affect the presidential election?
It certainly may be "a 'come to Jesus' moment for many Catholics," and could even "cast Catholics off from the Democratic Party for a generation," says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. Not so fast, says Michael O'Brien at MSNBC. The latest Gallup poll has Romney and Obama tied among Catholics, each with 46 percent. Will Romney will try to use the contraception mandate to chip away at Obama's Catholic supporters? Yes, he's already trying. But predicting the "Catholic vote" is "a fool's errand."

Sources: AP, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal (2), Hot Air, Fox News, MSNBC, National Catholic Reporter (2), National Journal, Notre Dame, Patheos, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post (2)

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