Lawsuits show Catholics are serious about fighting HHS mandate
Every day, employees who come to work at O'Brien Industrial Holdings on the near southside of St. Louis pass by a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that sits in the corner of the lobby.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus was enthroned to the business in 1992 by then-owner Nick Franchot and remains under the leadership of chairman Frank O'Brien, one of many ways that the business has created a framework of Catholic values in the workplace.
But the federal health care mandate, which will require businesses like O'Brien's to include full coverage of contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations, goes against those values. In response, O'Brien, a member of St. Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood, filed a lawsuit against the federal government March 15 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.
He's not alone. The Archdiocese of St. Louis and Catholic Charities of St. Louis joined with 41 other plaintiffs across the country in filing 12 separate lawsuits against the government May 21. The plaintiffs in those suits, which include dioceses and archdioceses, Catholic schools and universities, Catholic health systems and Catholic charitable organizations, are being represented by international law firm Jones Day.
In total, there are 23 lawsuits and 56 plaintiffs across the country who have filed suit against the government. Other organizations who have filed suit include Priests for Life, EWTN, Legatus, Belmont Abbey and others. They are being represented by firms including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Thomas More Law Center.
Noting that "time is running out," Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said May 21 that the "religious employer" exemption the federal government created as part of the mandate is too narrow, adding that it is aimed at religious organizations that primarily work with people of their own faith.
"It should come as no surprise to anyone that this exemption falls drastically short in protecting the religious liberties of Catholic St. Louisans," said the archbishop. As the mandate currently stands, it is not clear if an organization such as Catholic Charities would qualify for the exemption, as the organization primarily serves people of other faiths or no faith background.
"It is a human issue, a moral issue and an American issue," Archbishop Carlson said, not an issue of contraception. "Never before has the U.S. government forced the Catholic Church to provide a product that violates our religious beliefs. I cannot â€“ will not â€“ stand by and watch this happen to the flock entrusted to my care."
The American Center for Law and Justice, a pro-life Washington, D.C.-based law organization that focuses on U.S. constitutional law and human rights law and is representing O'Brien in his case, said the suit was the first in which a private business owner has challenged the federal mandate.
In the suit, O'Brien said the new federal regulations, under the Affordable Care Act, "violate an employer's religious and moral values."
Francis J. Manion, senior counsel with the ACLJ, said that with the mandate in the news the last several months, O'Brien took a closer look at his company's health plan through United Health Care and discovered, to his dismay, that the plan covered contraception.
O'Brien Industrial Holdings LLC is the holding company of the Christy family of companies, which explore, mine and process refractory and ceramic raw materials, with its products going to more than 40 countries. There are 87 employees.
"The fact of the matter is, most CEOs of companies don't really know exactly what's in their health plans -- like most employees," said Manion. "The policy doesn't say we don't cover birth control. It just says we have a prescription drug benefit." Manion cited another example of an organization of women religious, who, up until two years ago didn't know that their health plan covered contraceptives.
"I think a lot of people are probably examining their policies in light of all of this recent coverage of this issue and are saying, 'Oops, I don't want that,'" said Manion.
Because the health plan isn't up for renewal until next January, O'Brien would have to wait to change the plan until then. But under the federal mandate, he won't be able to change it, said Manion.
"We are really reasserting the right to religious liberty in these cases," said Manion. "It's amazing how little people think about that and how little they value that, compared to the Founding Fathers who put it into our Constitution.
"The government does not have the right to compel and coerce people to do this sort of thing that directly violates their religious beliefs," he said. "If the government thinks that universal access to contraception is so important, the government can provide that without coercing institutions or employers like Frank O'Brien who have objections to that."
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