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Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese sues over health insurance rule

Catholic entities object to mandate to cover contraceptives

05/21/2012 11:36 PM

05/22/2012 1:19 PM

In a lawsuit filed Monday, the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese says its religious liberties are under attack by provisions of President Barack Obama's healthcare law that require it to cover contraceptives and other services contrary to church doctrine.

The Affordable Care Act, derided by critics as "Obamacare," could also jeopardize the church's ability to provide services to non-Catholics, the diocese says. The suit seeks a declaration that the federal mandate cannot lawfully be applied to the diocese, an injunction barring its enforcement and an order vacating the mandate.

"If the government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the government's power to interfere with the free practice of one's religious beliefs," the suit says.

The suit was among a dozen filed simultaneously Monday in federal courts by Catholic entities, including the Dallas Diocese. Named in the Fort Worth Diocese's suit are the heads of the U.S. Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury departments.

Treasury and Health and Human Services officials said the agencies would not comment on pending litigation. The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Justice Department, which would defend the suit.

Catholics for Choice and some women's groups have praised Obama's healthcare initiative, saying that most Catholics favor insurance coverage of contraceptives.

Opposed are several groups that have raised objections -- spelled out in the diocese's lawsuit -- to having to cover contraception, sterilization, "abortion-inducing drugs" and related counseling services.

Religious exemption

The Obama administration tried to placate those concerns in February. The president said that religious liberty under the healthcare law would be "protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."

Obama said that if a woman's employer is a charity or a hospital that has a "religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company -- not the hospital, not the charity -- will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles."

Obama said religious organizations would not have to pay for the services and would not have to provide such services directly.

But the diocese's lawsuit says the details of how to define a religious organization are burdensome and troubling.

The suit says the government has created a narrow exemption for certain "religious employers" that must satisfy four criteria: They must employ persons who share their religious tenets, primarily serve people of those tenets, operate as a nonprofit and teach religious values as the purpose of the organization.

The provisions clearly rankled the diocese. "Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms, religious employers must plead with government bureaucrats for a determination that the employers are sufficiently 'religious,'" the suit says.

Bishop Kevin Vann, the leader of the diocese, said that, in effect, the healthcare mandate prohibits it from asking "what we have asked since the first Catholic institution was created in the Fort Worth area in 1876: 'Are you poor?' 'Are you hungry?' 'Do you need help?'"

Under the new definitions used in the mandate, Vann said, the diocese would be required to ask, "Are you Catholic?"

The suit contends that the law violates the First Amendment, which "also prohibits the government from becoming excessively entangled in religious affairs and from interfering with a religious institution's internal decisions concerning the organization's religious structure, ministers, or doctrine."

It also calls the president's proposed changes meaningless since they aren't part of the law.

The diocese provides health insurance coverage through a self-funded plan that works within church tenets and does not cover abortion or sterilization drugs or services. Contraceptives are covered only when prescribed to treat a medical illness.

In a video on the diocese website, Vann asks Catholics to continue voicing their concerns to officials.

The Fort Worth Diocese has more than 710,000 Catholics in 28 Texas counties stretching from Central Texas to the Red River. Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, which serves the same region, is a leading social services agency that ministers to people of all races and religions.

Catholics' views differ

Other Catholic leaders said that the government's religious exemption to these mandates is so narrowly worded that many religious institutions -- including Catholic hospitals, nursing homes, schools, soup kitchens and homeless shelters -- do not qualify because they do not discriminate against non-Catholics who seek assistance.

Diocese officials said each of the 12 lawsuits filed Monday was tailored to the institutions that filed them. The suits represent more than 40 dioceses, hospitals, schools and church agencies. Archdioceses and dioceses, including those in New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Mississippi, as well as universities such as Notre Dame, sued.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that the church has tried working with the White House and Congress. The group is not a party to the suits.

"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 said.

Catholics for Choice has challenged the stance of church leaders.

In a September 2009 survey conducted on behalf of the group, contraception was supported by 63 percent of respondents. The survey, with a 3.2-percentage-point margin of error, was based on interviews with 923 Catholics who are registered voters.

Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126

Twitter: @DarrenBarbee

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