Officials at Franciscan University of Steubenville said Wednesday their opposition to a federal health care mandate is more than "an argument about birth control."
"This case is about freedom of religion. We did not seek this fight, but we will not back down from the fight," said university Vice President of Advancement Michael Hernon.
Attorneys representing the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion earlier this week to dismiss the university lawsuit citing no immediate threat of harm. Hernon said the federal government has indicated accommodations "might be made in the future. But our lawsuit is based on what is in the law now."
"We cannot wait to see if the Obama administration will violate our conscience in the future. And as stated in May by our president, the Rev. Terence Henry, TOR, this university cannot and will not comply with this unjust mandate. We are hoping cooler heads will prevail on this matter," he said.
Hernon said a judge in Colorado recently granted an injunction for the owner of an industrial company who had objected to the federal mandate on religious grounds. We are encouraged by the ruling. This was a very important court decision. We are also encouraged by the government's own arguments that implied they understand our objections and are working on changing the law. But the mandate is still the law at this point," said Hernon.
"We do have a one-year safe harbor for our employee health insurance. We are hoping for a resolution to this issue within the next 12 months or we will have to remedy our situation," he said.
Hernon said about 300 employees are covered by the university's health insurance.
"This is a very serious issue for us. We cannot and will not comply. We will choose our faith over a federal mandate. We will become second-class citizens if this is allowed to stay in place. We are not ashamed of our faith," said Hernon.
"Our students, their parents and our benefactors support us in this case because of our religious identity. The federal government is asking us to violate our conscience. We will not agree to that. The federal government is telling us what we as a private university can and cannot do. That is wrong, and we will not step back from this," said Hernon.
The lawsuit against the health care mandate was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in May and seeks to have the mandate declared unconstitutional and enjoin the government from enforcing the requirement.
The university and 42 other separate plaintiffs filed a total of 12 lawsuits in federal courts around the country. Those plaintiffs are all Catholic organizations and include the University of Notre Dame, the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, as well as the Catholic dioceses of Dallas, Fort Worth, Rockville Centre, Pittsburgh and the Michigan Catholic Conference, which represents all seven dioceses in the state.
"The Catholic church is speaking with one unified voice on this issue. Every single American bishop has condemned this unjust mandate as an unconscionable violation of religious liberty. If allowed to stand, it will coerce Christians into cooperating with acts that violate core tenets of our faith," said Henry in May.
Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing this week that the school and dioceses are protected from the mandate's requirements until at least 2014.
They also said the lawsuit isn't timely because changes already are being made to the regulations to meet the concerns of religious groups.
"This is simply not a case where plaintiffs are forced to choose between foregoing lawful activity and risking substantial legal sanctions," Justice Department attorneys wrote.