Update on the HHS Mandate

Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Washington filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ unprecedented mandate that dramatically redefines religious ministry and requires religious organizations to provide health insurance coverage for drugs and procedures in direct conflict with their religious beliefs.

The HHS mandate includes a very narrow exemption for “religious employers.” Only those religious institutions that primarily serve and employ individuals of their own faith are deemed “religious enough” to be exempt from it.  Any other religious organizations, such as our Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and charities that serve all individuals regardless of their faith, do not qualify as “religious” for purposes of the exemption. Consequently, the HHS mandate forces these organizations, like the archdiocese, to act in direct violation of their beliefs.

The HHS mandate went into effect August 1, 2012 for most employers in the United States.  Religious organizations such as the archdiocese were given until August 1, 2013 to confront an impossible dilemma:  1) facilitate the delivery of drugs and procedures that violate their beliefs about the sanctity of life; 2) attempt to qualify for the exemption by violating their beliefs about serving all in need; or 3) risk being penalized with devastating fines. Despite discussion of an “accommodation” for religious employers, no such consideration has materialized, and in fact, the administration has said that any change to the definition of “religious employer” – the issue at the heart of our objection – is off the table.

On August 6, 2012, the U.S. government filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the archdiocese and its co-litigants, arguing that we have not suffered sufficient injury to give us legal standing to file our suit. The government has until September 24 to respond to our opposition, after which the court will rule on the matter.

Our constitutional right to religious freedom hangs in the balance. Earlier this week, the archdiocese and its partners in the lawsuit filed our opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss, citing the impact the law is already having on us and the fact that, regardless of the government’s stated intention to address our concerns, no such solution is guaranteed. The law has already taken effect, and despite assurances that our religious freedom concerns would be addressed, the law remains unchanged.

The government’s unwillingness to uphold longstanding federal conscience protections forces a terrible choice on the archdiocese – one that we must begin to consider now. If we continue to offer health insurance to our employees and their dependents, but refuse to cover drugs and procedures that violate our beliefs, the government could force us to pay a penalty of $100 a day per covered individual. With approximately 4,000 people currently enjoying excellent archdiocesan health care coverage, the archdiocese could incur devastating penalties of as high as nearly $145 million per year – for practicing our faith.

The only other alternative offered by the government is to drop health insurance benefits for our employees and their dependents altogether and face potential fines of more than $4 million per year for the privilege of practicing our faith. This could leave many employees and their families uninsured or underinsured. It is profoundly cynical to offer a financial incentive to drop insurance coverage, especially to an institution that has fought for more than 100 years for health care as a human right.

But more important than the crushing financial burden created by this mandate is the blow it strikes to our religious liberty. The Constitution allows for the full exercise of faith in the public square, free from government interference, by ministries that translate belief into action, serving millions of people every day.

Prayer is our most significant tool in the fight for freedom. Each time we engage in conversation with our Lord, He gifts us with the grace to become His witnesses in the world. I ask that you continue to pray for the success of our efforts to preserve religious freedom. We must all be vigilant in protecting this most sacred property, our freedom of conscience.