Catholic groups in the US are suing the Obama administration over a law obliging employers to provide workers with birth control coverage. Religious institutions argue that the bill forces them to violate Catholic doctrine or face steep fines.
Around 43 Catholic institutions across eight states have filed lawsuits against the regulations which are part of the Obama administration’s healthcare reform law. Bishops have planned to launch a campaign for religious freedom, protesting the contentious legislation in the run-up to the fourth of July holidays.
“We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress, and we'll keep at it, but there's still no fix,'' said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now.''
Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ordered all health insurance plans to include birth control for women as part of the Affordable Care Act.
President Obama had previously pledged to soften the new regulations to accommodate the beliefs of faith groups, but religious leaders are dissatisfied with progress.
The original law did not include churches or other houses of worship on the basis of religious objections, but did not exempt religious non-profit organizations, provoking the ire of church leaders. They argue that such interference in clerical matters crosses the boundary between state and church.
In an effort to appease the US Catholic church, Obama toned down the law in February decreeing that insurance companies would cover the costs for religious organizations.
Under the mandate, religious institutions can apply for an exemption from the bill if their purpose is to spread religious belief and they primarily employ people of the same faith. US Catholic university Notre Dame said that it was not clear whether they could apply for an exemption given their commitment to employ and serve people from a myriad of different faiths.
The department of health and human services has refrained from commenting on the legislation.
Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington joined the lawsuit and claimed that the new legislation was an attempt to redefine religious expression.
"While this mandate paid lip service to the rights of conscience and religious liberty, it created a definition that was so narrow, even the work of Mother Theresa would not have qualified as religious," Belford said.
While Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union rounded on religious critics, saying the bill was not new and is already active in 28 states.
"The lawsuits make it seem like taking a job is the same as joining a church. But organizations that participate in the public sphere are supposed to abide by public rules," Dalven said.
The lawsuits represent an escalation in tensions between President Obama and Catholic leaders during the presidential election year.
The Pew Research Center found that following the legislation’s introduction, Catholic support for Obama fell from 53 percent to 45, dropping to 37 percent among white Catholics. Given that Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008, the standoff with the Church could lose him valuable support in this year’s presidentials.