University of Notre Dame sues over ACA’s contraception mandate
Invoking “religious freedom”, the University of Notre Dame is suing the federal government over the health care law’s requirement that all insurance plans offered by employers and non-profit institutions must cover prescription contraception.
Notre Dame, founded by a Catholic priest in 1842, today became the first large religious-affiliated university to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate.
“This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives,” wrote Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president. “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.”
Even while acknowledging that many of Notre Dame’s faculty, staff, and students choose to use contraceptions, the university objected to the ACA’s mandate because it violates “centuries’ old teachings of the Catholic Church.” In addition to birth control, prescription contraceptions are often used to prevent ovarian cancer and treat medical conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis.
Although the ACA does exempt religious employers whose main purpose is to teach religious values and primarily employ and serve people who share the religious beliefs of the organization from having to cover birth control in their health plans, Notre Dame argued that the exemption is too narrow and therefore violates the university’s First Amendment right to religious freedom.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern Indiana after months of intense debate over contraceptives.
In February, President Barack Obama proposed a compromise to accommodate religiously-affiliated institutions – such as hospitals, universities, and charities – that object to offering birth control coverage to their employees or students. The compromise would require the insurance companies, not the institutions, to offer contraceptive coverage to employees or students of the religiously-affiliated organizations.
“The result will be that religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly,” Obama explained. “These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they’ll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries.”
Despite the compromise, Republican lawmakers ramped up their efforts to block the contraceptive mandate. House Republicans, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), held a congressional hearing where an all-male panel of religious leaders spoke on women’s reproductive health. The lone female witness, Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke, was banned from testifying because Issa deemed her as “not appropriate or qualified” on the issue.
Shortly after the House debacle, Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mont.), tried to push through a bill that would exempt all corporations and non-religious organizations from having to cover any health care services that they morally object to, including contraceptives, HIV testing, cervical cancer screening, vaccinations, or mental health services. The Blunt amendment was narrowly defeated by the Democratic Senate majority in March.
Notre Dame’s lawsuit is the latest legal challenge seeking to significantly weaken or repeal the entire health care reform law since its passage in 2009. In March, the Supreme Court heard 3-days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of the individual coverage mandate and the Medicaid coverage expansion. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in June.
- University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame v. Sebelius complaint filed May 21, 2012 (PDF)
- University of Notre Dame: A message from Father Jenkins on the HHS lawsuit
- WhatTheFolly.com: Senate blocks controversial birth control amendment
- WhatTheFolly.com: Sandra Fluke draws attention to financial & health burdens women suffer without contraceptive coverage
- WhatTheFolly.com: Justices question constitutionality of health insurance mandate