Ave Maria University officials filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the federal government over a contraception mandate that for weeks has riled Catholic institutions.
The suit is one of several across the country seeking injunctive relief for religiously-affiliated organizations concerned about paying for employee health insurance, which must include free birth control according to a regulation announced in January.
President Obama’s administration “knew from the beginning that this was not going to square with the teachings of the Catholic church, leaders in the Evangelical world, or with orthodox Jews,” said Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University.
White House officials have argued coverage of FDA-approved contraception, like birth control, sterilization, and the so-called “morning after” pill, saves insurance companies money by keeping women healthy.
But the suit, filed on behalf of Ave Maria University by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, claims the 2010 Affordable Care Act is a threat to religious freedom and the First Amendment.
The mandate is a “deliberate attack by the defendants on the religious beliefs of the university and millions of other Americans,” according to the complaint. Ave Maria University seeks exemption for itself and other religious organizations.
“Based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, and its own deeply held beliefs, the university does not believe that contraception, sterilization, or abortion are properly understood to constitute medicine, health care, or a means of providing for the well being of persons,” the lawsuit stated. “Indeed, the university believes these procedures involve gravely immoral practices, including the intentional destruction of innocent human life.”
Under Ave Maria University’s current health policy, contraceptives are not covered, a spokeswoman for the school said. Even if prescribed by doctor, an employee would have to pay out of pocket.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, names Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, as the defendant, along with the secretaries of the Department of Labor and the Department of the Treasury.
The mandate originally required employers to pay for contraception coverage. An uproar from Catholic institutions — including Ave Maria University and Southwest Florida’s Diocese of Venice — on Feb. 10 triggered a compromise: insurers would foot the bill for birth control coverage. But that wasn’t enough for some institutions.
“They can say it’s free all they want, but these drugs cost money today, they’ll cost money tomorrow, and somebody will be paying for them,” Towey said. “To argue that it’s free is just not true.”
A fine of $2,000 for each of the university’s 146 employees could be imposed for non-compliance. Towey said the school’s 23-member Board of Trustees voted unanimously to file the lawsuit.
Several institutions filed similar suits in recent weeks, and not just by Catholic organizations. Geneva College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, filed a complaint against the government Tuesday.
“I do think the administration has been hellbent on expanding contraception services, including sterilization,” Towey said. “They could very easily have tailored this expansion and protected First Amendment rights, and they chose not to.”
The suit comes one day before a visit to Collier County by Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice.
The Bishop is scheduled to officiate Ash Wednesday Mass at 8 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in North Naples. He will then pray with a group near Planned Parenthood as part of “40 Days for Life,” an anti-abortion campaign around 9:15 a.m.
Jim Towey, Ave Maria University President announced today that the University is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from a federal court in Florida, because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demands the University offer health plan services that undermine its firmly-held religious convictions.
“The federal government has no right to coerce the University into funding contraceptive services that include abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, in the health plan we offer our employees,” said Towey. “Under the federal mandate Ave Maria University would be paying for these drugs if we complied with the law. So we will not. We are prepared to discontinue our health plan and pay the $2,000 per employee, per year fine rather than comply with an unjust, immoral mandate in violation of our rights of conscience.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed suit this morning on behalf of the University.
“The federal mandate puts Ave Maria in a terrible bind,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for the Becket Fund. “Either it betrays its faith and covers the drugs, or else it ends employee health benefits and pays hundreds of thousands in annual fines.”
Towey, former head of the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is determined to stop the Administration’s assault on religious freedom. “Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action, is a perilous precedent,” said Towey. “I hope all of my colleagues in academia, including Catholic higher education, awaken to this danger.”
Ave Maria University’s case is the fourth lawsuit brought by the Becket Fund challenging the Obama administration’s abortion drug mandate. The Becket Fund also represents Belmont Abbey College (a Catholic college in North Carolina), Colorado Christian University (a nondenominational Christian University outside Denver), and the Eternal Word Television Network.
Towey’s statement is below.
Statement by Jim Towey, President of Ave Maria University
February 21, 2012
It is a sad day when an American citizen or organization has no choice but to sue its own government in order to exercise religious liberty rights guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution.
Today Ave Maria University is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is requiring the University to offer health plan services inconsistent with our firmly-held religious convictions. As an American Catholic, I am in disbelief that I have to choose between being a good Catholic and a good citizen. I will not, and the University will not, accept this false choice. The federal government has no right to coerce the University into funding contraceptive services that include abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, in the health plan we offer our employees.
Some will argue that this dilemma was resolved by a so-called “accommodation” by the Obama administration on February 10th, one that attempted to shift the provision of these services from the employer to the insurer. This sleight of hand maneuver by the government fooled no one. Ave Maria University pays 95 percent of the cost of the health plan we offer our employees. It is absurd for the federal government to suggest that these new pharmaceuticals will be free because they aren’t free now. In fact the administration’s own argument for free contraceptive drugs is that they currently place a financial burden on women.
Under the federal mandate Ave Maria University would be paying for these drugs if we complied with the law. So we will not. We are prepared to discontinue our health plan and pay the $2,000 per employee, per year fine rather than comply with an unjust, immoral mandate in violation of our rights of conscience.
Let me be clear: a woman’s right to contraception is not an issue in this case, nor is it at Ave Maria. Employees at Ave Maria and elsewhere are free to decide on their own whether to use birth control. Never before has the federal government bullied groups like ours into doctrinal conformance on an issue with such religious and moral gravity.
America has respected the right of individuals to have faith or no faith, and the right of faith-based groups to be in the public square without having to sell their souls. My experience working in the White House in the faith-based office as its director taught me the beauty of the interplay between the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
It is apparent that this administration does not want to strike a balance between its zeal to implement a new social policy and the rights of religiously-affiliated organizations like Ave Maria. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial in response to President Obama’s February 10th statement, entitled “The bishops aren’t alone,” said, “Americans want government policy to protect religious liberty – the first freedom guaranteed by our Constitution’s First Amendment.” Ave Maria agrees, and until the federal government backs down from requiring us to pay to practice our faith, we will fight it with all of our rights under the law. We will not violate the tenets of our faith and cower before our own government’s threat of massive fines.
Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action, is a perilous precedent, and I hope all of my colleagues in academia, including Catholic higher education, awaken to this danger.
I want to thank the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for representing Ave Maria University in this legal action. A university of our small size does not have the resources to fight the federal government and we are grateful to the Becket Fund for representing us without cost. In their good hands, and with the grace of God, I am confident the Ave Maria University v. Sebelius lawsuit will be successful.