The dioceses of Springfield and Joliet and their associated Catholic Charities today joined 39 other Catholic entities in filing 12 separate lawsuits against the controversial federal Health and Human Services mandate, charging the requirement violates their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield issued a statement, as well as a video, in which he notes the lawsuit rises above the surface requirement of the HHS mandate calling for all employers to offer insurance coverage of morally objectionable abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization.
"This lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference," Paprocki wrote. "It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and fund services which violate their religious beliefs."
The lawsuit names as defendants HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, as well as the agencies they represent.
The total 43 plaintiffs include other dioceses, Catholic schools and universities, Catholic health systems and Catholic charitable organizations — most notably the University of Notre Dame and Our Sunday Visitor. The lawsuits were filed simultaneously today in 12 separate jurisdictions across the nation. The lawsuit filed by the Springfield and Joliet dioceses and their accompanying Catholic Charities was filed in the U.S. district court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, located in Chicago.
The United State Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was not part of the lawsuits, but its president, Cardinal Dolan of New York, applauded the actions.
"We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with the Congress – and we'll keep at it – but there's still no fix," Dolan said. "Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."
Dolan serves the Archdiocese of New York, which is one of the 43 plaintiffs.
Paprocki notes the religious exemption for the HHS mandate is so narrow that it essentially allows for only a religious organization who employs and serves people of its own faith, with evangelization of that faith as its primary mission. That runs counter to what Catholicism is, Paprocki wrote.
"Effectively, the mandate prohibits us from asking what American Catholics have been able to ask for more than 200 years, 'Are you hungry?' Now we also have to ask, 'Are you Catholic?''' Paprocki wrote.
The HHS mandate and its narrow exemption stifle the Catholic mission, according to Paprocki.
"To qualify for the exemption, and so to be permitted to follow their beliefs, Catholic institutions may have to stop providing educational opportunities to as many non-Catholics as they currently educate, stop serving as many non-Catholics in need as they currently serve, and stop employing some of the non-Catholic employees they currently employ," Paprocki wrote. "But this kind of withdrawal from the world violates our religious commitment to serve all in need without regard to religion."
A statement from the office of Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet echoed Paprocki's concerns.
"This exemption runs contrary to decades of federal laws that have consistently honored and respected the conscience rights of religious institutions and individuals. The HHS mandate jeopardizes religious freedom – a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution – and undermines access to a wide range of social services."
Cardinal George of the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a short statement of support of all of the lawsuits filed today.
"The Archdiocese of Chicago is obviously deeply concerned about preserving the Catholic identity of Catholic educational, health care and social service organizations. The Archdiocese therefore entirely supports the actions of the Catholic dioceses and organizations that have brought suit against the Department of Health and Human Services for violating the heretofore constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom of Catholic institutions," Cardinal George stated.
"At this time, the Archdiocese of Chicago is still in the process of working out how it might best initiate or join any legal action," he wrote.
The newly ordained and installed bishop of Rockford also released a statement. On the job just one week, Bishop David J. Malloy quoted the First Amendment of the Constitution in supporting the 43 plaintiffs.
“Until now, our laws have respected and honored the conscience rights of religious institutions and individuals—a heritage that has helped the United States stand out among free nations around the world," Malloy wrote. "This mandate clearly breaks that tradition of respect for liberty.”
“As Catholics, we cannot and will not compromise our core beliefs," Malloy stated. "We cannot and will not allow any government mandate to force us to participate in any activity morally or religiously objectionable.”
A statement from the diocese of Peoria noted that Bishop Daniel Jenky "gives his whole-hearted support to the lawsuits."
"As a Fellow and Trustee of the University of Notre Dame, he participated from the beginning in that school's decision to sue the Obama administration," the statement reads, noting later that "the diocese is exploring the possibility of filing a similar lawsuit."
UPDATE: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago on July 9 joined the lawsuits against the federal government over the HHS mandate. Cardinal George of Chicago issued the following statement:
The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago is a ministry that feeds the poor, protects the homeless, counsels the troubled and houses the homeless. This ministry will lose its identity as Catholic unless the HHS mandate now in force as the recent law of the land is changed and the Catholic Church and other religious bodies are given back their constitutional freedom to minister publicly. This is the issue now before a court. It is also the issue before a nation that portrays itself as the “land of the free.”
I am proud of the work of our Catholic Charities. This ministry gives flesh to the Church’s constant concern for the poor. I am sorry that the intransigence of the Department of Health and Human Services has made it necessary to defend in court what every American could take for granted until this year.