Oct. 8, 2013

Diocese, bishop, others file complaint and injunction

Diocesan services, agencies may be forced to close

The Diocese of Erie; the Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of Erie; the St. Martin Center, Erie; the Prince of Peace Center, Farrell; and Erie Catholic Preparatory School including Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria Academy in Erie today filed a complaint challenging the U.S. government Affordable Care Act mandate, moving for injunctive relief on an expedited basis.

The plaintiffs, who filed a lawsuit against the United States government on May 21, 2012, are filing for an injunction because the government mandate will be enforced against them beginning Jan. 1, 2014. The plaintiffs need time to plan for what benefits they will provide to their employees beginning in 2014. (The original lawsuit was deemed “unripe,” a legal term used to indicate the impact of the lawsuit would not be felt until too far into the future.)

While the diocese now qualifies for the government’s “religious employer exemption,” numerous other charitable and educational entities, including St. Martin Center, Prince of Peace Center, and Erie Catholic Preparatory School—which are indispensable and integral parts of the Catholic Diocese of Erie—do not qualify for the exemption and will be required to comply with the government mandate or face steep fines.

Should the diocese be forced to facilitate coverage for services it finds objectionable, it may have to refuse to offer insurance coverage for the entities named, thus activating the fines. The fines, $100 per person per day, would be financially crippling to the agencies involved.

The U.S. government mandate has now divided the Catholic Church into two wings:  (1) a “worship” wing limited to “houses of worship and religious orders” that provide religious services; and (2) a “charitable and educational” wing that provides what the government views as secular services. The plaintiffs believe the artificial distinction ignores the reality that the Catholic Church engages in charity and education as an exercise of religion. By excluding Catholic charitable and educational organizations from the category of exempt “religious employers,” the U.S. government mandate forces the heart of the Catholic Church to act contrary to its sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Bishop Persico contends the government mandate creates a slippery slope. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, what comes next?” he asks. “This lawsuit defends the free exercise of religion without government interference.” Bishop Persico and other arch/dioceses filing for injunctions are perplexed by the government’s decision not to provide a broader definition for religious entities.

“With all of the challenges our country is facing at this time, and with all the good done by these religious organizations, why would the administration want to make it harder for religious institutions to contribute to the common good?” Bishop Persico said. “The government is willing to jeopardize a massive network of hospitals, schools, and social services by insisting they provide for services they find objectionable including abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.”

Bishop Persico emphasized that the government mandate is not about access to contraceptives, which are widely available at low or no cost. (Nine out of ten employers already cover them.) He points to the defense of religious liberty as the central focus of the legal action.

“The simple truth is that the U.S. government is forcing the Catholic Church to facilitate what it considers immoral,” he said. “As Catholics and as Americans, we are obliged to defend the right to religious liberty for ourselves and for others.” Bishop Persico said that religious liberty protects the ability of each person to pursue the truth, to embrace it, and to shape their lives around it—all without government interference.

“Religious liberty means more than being able to go to Mass on Sunday,” he said. “It also means we should have the ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans in accordance with our religious beliefs. If we are not free in our conscience and our exercise of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.”

Underscoring the broad scope of the case, the bishop asked, “If this challenge to religious freedom is allowed to stand, which faith group will be the next one to have its rights violated?”

The government issued the “religious employer exemption” in response to strong objection around the country when the mandate was first promulgated last year. But its definition of religious employers was extremely narrow. Despite repeated pleas from the religious community, the government has limited the definition of religious employers to “houses of worship and religious orders,” excluding Catholic charitable, education, and other organizations.

The suit being filed today is one of numerous suits being filed nationwide on behalf of Catholic archdioceses, dioceses, and charitable and educational institutions. Courts across the country have granted injunctions in at least 20 cases in which for-profit institutions were faced with having to comply with the U.S. government mandate in violation of their religious beliefs. The U.S. government mandate is now final and goes into effect on January 1, 2014.