Notre Dame has now joined a number of other Catholic institutions in filing suit against a new mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services that may require the inclusion of contraceptive services in health plans beginning in August 2013 at religious institutions such as Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges and universities. Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., who took a lot of heat for his decision to invite a recently elected Barack Obama to speak at Notre Dame's commencement in 2009, makes the case for the decision in a message to N.D. students and alumni:
Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: it is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the Government from providing such services. Many of our faculty, staff and students--both Catholic and non-Catholic--have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs. And we believe that, if the Government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to serve as its agents. We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others; we simply ask that the Government not impose its values on the University when those values conflict with our religious teachings. We have engaged in conversations to find a resolution that respects the consciences of all and we will continue to do so.
This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives. For if we concede that the Government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions. For if one Presidential Administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another Administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements. If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name.
Notre Dame thus joins a group of 42 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions that filed suit in federal court on May 21 against the mandate. As Grant Gallicho at DotCommonweal points out, however, it's not clear that the mandate would apply to many of the institutions involved in the suits; dioceses and Catholic elementary schools are already exempt and many others may successfully apply for exemption before the mandate kicks in 15 months. Here's Grant again arguing that the H.H.S. exemption to the mandate, as a new comment period continues, is already broader than some critics at first believed. In the meantime, apparently discussions will continue between religious employers and the Obama administration even as the suits begin.