STEUBENVILLE - Franciscan University of Steubenville filed suit Monday against several top Cabinet officials, joining dozens of Catholic organizations in declaring the national health care law an affront to their religious liberties.
The move comes a week after the university announced that as of next semester, it no longer will give students the opportunity to purchase health insurance through the school, due to provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that require insurance providers to cover products and procedures the church considers immoral, such as contraceptives, sterilization and drugs many Catholics regard as abortion-inducing.
President Barack Obama and other government officials previously have said the measure will improve health care for women and no religious institution will have to pay for or provide directly services with which it does not agree. But Catholic leaders, including those at Franciscan, have dismissed that response as "a charade."
Ann Robbins, left, of Richboro, Pa., holds a sign during a March rally for religious freedom in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the mandate that private health care cover women’s contraception.
"Under no circumstances can Catholics be both in compliance with this new law and at the same time live the faith that we believe," said the university's president, the Rev. Terence Henry, TOR, in a statement released Monday. "This mandate is not only a grave infringement on religious liberty; it is a betrayal of those who sacrificed to make this country what it is today."
The 59-page federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, seeks a declaration that the mandate violates First Amendment protections of religious freedom and an injunction prohibiting the Obama administration from enforcing the mandate. It also asks the court to award monetary damages covering the cost of the litigation.
The lawsuit was filed jointly with the Michigan Catholic Conference and names Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner as defendants.
In addition to its assertion that the health care law violates the First Amendment, the lawsuit also claims an exemption written into the law for group health plans established and maintained by religious employers is too narrow because it only covers organizations that employ and serve mostly people of that same religion. Franciscan officials believe the provision "effectively puts the federal government in the position of deciding which organizations are 'religious enough.'"
The exemption "punishes us for reaching out to serve and employ those who do not share our faith," said Henry.
The lawsuit also seeks immediate relief on the grounds the mandate "imposes a present and ongoing hardship" on the the university, and because its outcome will have a significant impact on current and future negotiations concerning employee benefits packages.
When Franciscan an-nounced it was dropping its student health insurance policy, university leaders said there were no immediate plans to discontinue coverage for employees because the law allows religious institutions that previously did not cover services they find objectionable to be "grandfathered in," at least for another full coverage year. But the lawsuit notes changes could be coming that would affect that status.
"For example, the employee contribution to the premium cannot increase by more than 5 percent of the cost of coverage compared to the employee contribution on March 23, 2010. Franciscan University currently splits cost increases evenly with its employees," the document states. "Given the current trajectory of health care costs, Franciscan University will exceed that 5 percent within the next few years."
Forty-three separate plaintiffs - all Catholic institutions - filed more than a dozen federal lawsuits around the country Monday.