A brief filed today by the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in coordination with The Cardinal Newman Society and six other national religious organizations strongly urged the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the sincerely-held religious beliefs of Catholic universities, colleges and schools by invalidating any directive to provide coverage of sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients in employee health plans as part of Obamacare’s HHS contraception mandate.
The Obama administration’s “HHS Mandate” is the “elephant in the room” threatening faithful Catholic education, said Bob Laird, vice president for program development at the Newman Society. “If our schools can teach the faith and the public good in the classroom but not practice it in the conduct of their own business, then education is merely an ideological shell with no substance.”
The amicus brief, supporting the seven cases challenging the HHS Mandate to be heard by the Supreme Court in March, called on the Justices to reverse the decisions made by lower courts threatening the religious freedom of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other petitioners, including Catholic schools. Of those seven cases, Belmont Abbey College, The Catholic University of America, Thomas Aquinas College and several Catholic high schools would be immediately affected. Catholic colleges and high schools with open cases will also be affected once the decision trickles down through the courts.
The Newman Society was invited by the U.S. bishops to join the brief alongside the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance; World Vision, Inc.; Catholic Relief Services; Family Research Council; Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; and the Thomas More Society.
“The [Newman] Society serves many Catholic schools and colleges across the country which are subject to the HHS mandate, despite the fact that it conflicts with their sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the brief stated. Furthermore, the Newman Society’s own employee health insurance plan, The Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, is one of the petitioners included in the Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit.
“The stakes are high,” said Laird. “There are major public consequences if faith-based organizations cannot continue to minister in schools, colleges and universities; in hospitals; and in other faith-based organizations such as The Cardinal Newman Society.”
The brief paid particular attention to the services provided by Catholic education “that government and other organizations cannot reproduce easily or at all, and whose effectiveness government and secular organizations cannot match,” and what society risks losing by imposing the mandate on Catholic schools:
Faith-based elementary and secondary schools make a distinctive contribution to the education of the Nation’s children that public schools have been unable to match. In 2015, the combined average SAT score for students from religious schools was 1596 points, or 134 points higher, than the average score of 1462 for public school students. Students in religious schools are safer than students in public schools, as measured by fewer instances of violent crime and bullying. A higher percentage of students in religious schools report feeling safe from attack or harm in school compared to their public school peers.
Additionally, Catholic universities and colleges produce a “disproportionately high number of graduates,” especially in areas of national need such as nursing and teacher education. Catholic higher education also “retains students through graduation at a higher rate than those colleges and universities without religious affiliation,” according ACCU data compiled in the brief.
The brief continued:
Are we really to understand from the government that these and other faith-based institutions, and the faith that inspires them, are simply irrelevant to the common good? Must all organizations — even those founded upon and motivated by sincere religious convictions — either conform to the Executive Branch’s views on sexual ethics or stop serving the public? Is this the price that has to be paid by American society simply for a religiously-affiliated organization to do good works?
Several of the other arguments presented in the brief are:
-That the current mandate is not the least restrictive means of furthering compelling government interest.
-That the mandate would do more harm than good by subjecting faith-based organizations (FBOs) to millions of dollars in fines for non-compliance, and requiring contraceptive coverage would lead to financial ruin for these organizations and their employees.
-That the cost of replacing FBO services, which provide charitable services and aid valued in the billions of dollars, would be crippling to local and federal government and communities.
-That the supposed “accommodation” is not “just a form” but a formal cooperation which places a substantial burden on one’s religious freedom and therefore is anything but accommodating.
“A recurring motif in this litigation has been the suggestion, by the government and even some courts, that the petitioners are required to sign ‘just a form’ and, for that reason, are not substantially burdened in their religious freedom,” the brief stated, noting the language used in the decision issued by the 7th Circuit Court in University of Notre Dame v. Burwell.
Any such formal cooperation in signing the form could lead to further religious freedom issues down the road, the brief argued. While the case, as it stands, is only “tangentially about contraception,” the federal government could foreseeably force religious organizations to not only obtain drugs and procedures that violate religious convictions, but also require mandatory coverage of abortion — a step already taken in California — or mandate physician assisted suicide, which is now legal in at least four states, as necessary “health” coverage.
“That people throughout history have been willing to die for the sake of a religious obligation,” the brief stated, “is a testament to the seriousness, persistence and depth of religious conviction.”
The Cardinal Newman Society, along with the other petitioners and FBOs, now await the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in March with an impending decision likely in June.
“I have full confidence that the Court will support the petitioners and allow non-profit faith-based organizations an exemption from the HHS Mandate,” said Laird.
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