Groups settle in lawsuit against HHS contraceptive mandate

IMAGE: CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Dozens of Catholic groups that challenged the
contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act have reached a settlement with
the U.S. Justice Department, they announced late Oct. 16.

groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the Pennsylvania dioceses of Greensburg,
Pittsburgh and Erie, were represented by the Cleveland-based law firm Jones

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl wrote an Oct. 16 letter to archdiocesan priests saying
the “binding agreement” ends the litigation challenging the Health
and Human Services’ mandate and provides a “level of assurance as we move
into the future.”

The Washington
Archdiocese was one of dozens of groups challenging the mandate, which went to
the Supreme Court last year in the consolidated case of Zubik v. Burwell.
Although it was most often described as the Little Sisters of the Poor fighting
against the federal government, the case before the court involved seven
plaintiffs and each of these combined cases represented a group of schools,
churches or church-sponsored organizations.

Bishop David A. Zubik, whom the case is named for, said he was grateful for the
settlement, which he described as an “agreement with the government that secures and reaffirms the
constitutional right of religious freedom.”

In an Oct. 17
statement, the bishop said the diocese’s five-year-long challenge to the mandate “has
been resolved successfully” allowing Catholic Charities in the diocese and
other religious organizations of different denominations to be exempt from
“insurance coverage or practices that are morally unacceptable.”

He said the settlement
follows the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious
organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core

On Oct.
6, the Trump administration issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the
contraceptive mandate to include religious employers who object on moral grounds to
covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their
employee health insurance. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice issued
guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding
religious liberty protections in federal law.

Wuerl said in his letter to priests that the new guidelines and regulations were
extremely helpful but that the “settlement of the Zubik litigation adds a
leavening of certainty moving forward. It removes doubt where it might
otherwise exist as it closes those cases.”

settlement adds additional assurances,” he added, “that we will not
be subject to enforcement or imposition of similar regulations imposing such
morally unacceptable mandates moving forward.”

cardinal thanked the Jones Day law firm for its legal representation in the
case and thanked Catholics for their prayers and support for the petitioners in
the long legal fight.

Thomas Aquinas
College of Santa Paula, California, one of the groups that fell under the
Washington Archdiocese’s challenge of the HHS mandate to the Supreme Court,
similarly thanked the law firm Jones Day for representing the school pro

school’s president, Michael McLean, said in an Oct. 16 statement that as part
of the settlement, the government will pay a portion of the legal costs and
fees incurred by the law firm.

He said
the college welcomed the broadening of the exemption from the HHS mandate by
the Trump administration in early October but he similarly said the settlement
of the case provides “something even better: a permanent exemption from an
onerous federal directive — and any similar future directive — that would
require us to compromise our fundamental beliefs.”

is an extraordinary outcome for Thomas Aquinas College and for the cause of
religious freedom,” he added.

school’s statement said according to the terms of the settlement, the government
concedes that the contraceptive mandate “imposes a substantial burden”
on the plaintiffs’ exercise of religion and “cannot be legally enforced”
under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The contraceptive
mandate, in place since 2012, required all employers to provide contraceptive
coverage in their employer insurance. Last year when opposition to this mandate
came to the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously returned the case to the
lower courts with instructions to determine if contraceptive insurance coverage
could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without
directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage.

Bishop Lawrence T. Persico, representing one of the groups that challenged the mandate,
said in an Oct. 17 statement that it has been “difficult for people to
understand that this lawsuit was not just about contraceptives.

real issue,” he said, “was the government attempting to narrow the
definition of freedom of religion, using the HHS mandate to exempt only a small
subset of religious employers. Churches were declared exempt, but their
hospitals, Catholic Charities agencies, schools, and universities were not.”

bishop said he was pleased with the settlement particularly because the church
continues to assert that all of its ministries “are inextricably tied to the
practice of our faith.”

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Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington
Archdiocese, contributed to this report.

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Carol Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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