By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published October 11, 2012
The Archdiocese of Atlanta, led by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, and other Catholic entities in Georgia have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. Included in the lawsuit are the Diocese of Savannah and Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and Christ the King School, Atlanta.
The lawsuit was filed Friday, Oct. 5, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta. Defendants are the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary; the U.S. Department of Labor and Hilda Solis, Secretary; and the U.S. Department of the Treasury and Timothy Geithner, Secretary.
With this action, the Catholic Church in Georgia joins more than 50 other dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions that have filed suit in federal court to stop these three government agencies from implementing a mandate that would require them to cover and provide for free contraceptives and sterilization in their health plans.
The lawsuit states that the U.S. government “is attempting to force plaintiffs—all Catholic entities—to provide, pay for, and/or facilitate access to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Archbishop Gregory acknowledged that this lawsuit is unprecedented but necessary for the archdiocese, saying, “We are undertaking this action because the stakes are so incredibly high—our religious liberty and that of our fellow Catholics and people of other religious faiths as well as those with no professed religious belief throughout the nation are impacted by this proposed action.”
He said, “The unchallenged results of the HHS mandate would require that we compromise or violate our religious faith and ethical beliefs. This might stand as only the first of such violations of our religious liberty if it were to go unopposed.”
The lawsuit also stated that the archdiocese and other plaintiffs “acknowledge that individuals in this country have a legal right to these medical services; they are, and will continue to be, freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the government itself from making them more widely available.”
It continues, “But the right to such services does not authorize the government to co-opt religious entities like the plaintiffs into providing or facilitating access to them.”
The lawsuit asserts that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits “just this sort of overbearing and oppressive governmental action.”
Bishop Hartmayer said, “Our challenge to the federal mandate is not about whether people in this country should have access to the services covered by the mandate; but rather, it is about the fundamental issue of whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to fund services which violate our religious and moral beliefs.”
Archbishop Gregory said that the lawsuit has been filed not only by the dioceses in Georgia, but also Catholic Charities Atlanta and Christ the King School, because “the work of the Church is represented by many different agencies.”
He noted, “We are not simply the parishes of the archdiocese, but also the educational and social service departments of this local Church. We serve the people of our region in many different ways and in many different capacities.”
Charles Thibaudeau, the director of human resources for the archdiocese, said that Christ the King School was selected to be one of the defendants because it is representative of the other Catholic schools in Georgia.
He said, “It’s our flagship elementary school and one of the largest.”
Catholic Charities Atlanta’s chief executive officer, Joseph Krygiel, said that his organization was very much in favor of joining the lawsuit. He said, “Our Catholic Charities board of directors met and discussed this issue in depth. Overwhelmingly, the board voted recently to authorize Catholic Charities Atlanta to join the HHS mandate lawsuit as plaintiffs along with the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
The Catholic Charities board, he said, “felt that religious freedom is the cornerstone of every basic human right.”
He spoke of the importance of the work that Catholic Charities does for all people, regardless of their beliefs.
He said, “The large majority of poor and needy people that we serve are not Catholic. In fact, we never ask our clients what faith they practice or if they even believe in God before we provide help to them. … We, in fact, witness to our faith each day by this service to the most vulnerable among us by always believing in the dignity of each human person.”
Krygiel added, “This HHS mandate is an attempt by the government to literally secularize all social services provided by Catholic Charities organizations across our country, and to also secularize health care and education provided by Catholic hospitals and schools.”
Catholic organizations have objected to the contraceptive mandate since it was announced Aug. 1, 2011, by Sebelius as part of the Affordable Care Act. Unless they are subject to a narrow religious exemption or have a grandfathered health plan, employers will be required to pay for sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, as part of their health coverage.
HHS drafted a narrow exemption for religious employers who object to providing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as mandated, but to be exempted they must serve and hire people primarily of their own faith. Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable organizations may not qualify under that standard, in which case they would either have to provide such coverage in violation of Catholic teaching, pay steep annual fines in order to keep providing health insurance to their employees and students, or stop providing health insurance entirely.
In response to the criticism, President Barack Obama announced a possible compromise, giving Catholic institutions a year’s reprieve from having to comply with the HHS mandate and allowing them to pass the coverage costs on to their insurance carriers rather than pay for them directly. The compromise did not change the administration’s fundamental position, however.
Krygiel said the health care coverage for Catholic Charities employees might be lost, if the mandate is “forced upon us, and we are morally forced to make the decision to drop health care coverage.”
This affects their workforce, he said, making Catholic Charities “less competitive for highly qualified social workers, counselors, and lawyers” now working for him and those who might work for the organization in the future.
He added, “Under this HHS mandate we and other Catholic Charities agencies may not be classified as exempt religious organizations. To qualify as an exempt religious organization we might be required to restrict our services to only those few clients we serve that are Catholic. That would jeopardize a large portion of the 18,000 clients we help each year in the Atlanta area who are not Catholic and who desperately depend on us for assistance.”
Thibaudeau said that there are about 1,500 employees in the Archdiocese of Atlanta who might lose their health insurance if the mandate stands, plus another 1,500 members of employees’ families receiving coverage under the archdiocesan plan.
All of the employees of the archdiocese could be affected, he said.
Archbishop Gregory said that this legal action has been developing “over the past several months with consultation with the USCCB and our lawyers.”
Jones Day, an international law firm with more than 2,400 attorneys on five continents, and the Atlanta-based law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell are guiding the legal action and providing their services pro bono, said the archbishop.
While the lawsuit was filed last week, the timing from this point on is dependent on the courts and the actions of the other parties. Archbishop Gregory noted that “legal decisions are necessarily complex and can be quite time consuming.” He and other leaders in the lawsuit declined to suggest a specific timeline.
Archbishop Gregory spoke of the “heritage of faith and dedication to the service of the poor and needy who have been served by the agencies of the Catholic Church in Georgia with generosity and commitment for all of the years of our existence in this region.”
With this lawsuit, he said, “We become one more voice that must be heard by the courts as they consider the legality of this action.”