Notre Dame Sues the Obama Administration

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Fr. John J. Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, notified staff this morning that the school will be refiling its lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate. From his statement:

The University of Notre Dame will today re-file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana for relief from a mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that, contrary to Catholic teaching, requires Notre Dame and similar religious organizations to provide through their insurance plans or third party administrators contraceptives, sterilization procedures and drugs that some assert induce abortions.  The decision to re-file came after earnest but unavailing efforts to find a solution acceptable to the various parties.

Our abiding concern in both the original filing of May 21, 2012 and this re-filing has been Notre Dame’s freedom—and indeed the freedom of many religious organizations in this country—to live out a religious mission.  We have not sought to prevent women from having access to services, nor even to prevent the Government from providing them.  For over a year we have been in conversation with Administration officials to resolve this matter.  We believe that participants undertook these discussions in good faith, and we are grateful to the Administration for the time it gave to this matter and for its efforts to accommodate our concerns.  We have concluded, however, the Government’s accommodations would require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching, and to create the impression that the University cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission. In these ways, we contend, the regulations compel us to violate our religious beliefs.

Notre Dame wholeheartedly supports, in accord with Catholic teaching and in union with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the effort to provide “accessible, life-affirming health care” for everyone (USCCB ‘Special Message’ on HHS Mandate, November 13, 2013).  It is deeply regrettable that rather than joining with the Catholic Church, which has long been a leader in providing such care, the Department of Health and Human Services through this mandate has created a conflict that has demanded time, energy and resources and distracted all parties involved from seeking ways to provide such care.

As I said regarding our original filing, because at its core this filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptive services.  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 will undermine those institutions.  For if one Presidential Administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another Administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result that these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements.  If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name.

During this controversy, the Obama administration has always benefited from fog and emotion around this issue, misleadingly presented as some kind of salvo of liberty on behalf of the women of America. Notre Dame is, in fact, where the president insisted he would respect conscience rights of Americans, including those of the Holy Cross priests who run Mary’s University in South Bend. The reason many vocally objected to the president speaking there in 2008, concern about identity and mission and being Catholic cover in a legislative campaign that would undermine a culture of life and freedom of religion. And here we are. About 90 cases filed. I’m grateful to Notre Dame — as someone who wants to see it and its Catholic identity and mission always be integral to its educational, cultural, research contributions — for being joined in this battle for religious liberty, which have implications beyond its campus and even our borders.