Notre Dame re-files Obamacare contraception lawsuit
The University of Notre Dame re-filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Affordable Care Act’s controversial contraception mandate, claiming the law violated its Catholic doctrine.
The Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, mandates that universities and employers provide health insurance plans that cover preventative reproductive services for women, such as birth control and sterilization. Religious institutions which only employ members of its own faith—like churches— are exempt, but not religious-affiliated hospitals, charities, or universities, such as Notre Dame.
The Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, said the university’s lawsuit was “not about preventing women from having access to contraception” when the lawsuit was initially filed in May.
“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,” Jenkins wrote in a university statement.
The original lawsuit was judged premature and dismissed because the Obama administration had delayed enforcing the mandate, now scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. The administration had indicated it might make further accommodations for religious organizations.
Notre Dame joins a growing number of Catholic and religiously affiliated universities suing the Obama administration under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, according to Diana Verm, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Becket Fund represents six universities who object to the mandate, though not Notre Dame.
“The government cannot burden a severe exercise of religion,” Verm said. “One of the saddest things about this whole conflict is how unnecessary it is. The government could have offered the same deal it gives to churches.”
Many Notre Dame undergraduates grapple with the lawsuit and the contraception mandate.
“I’m really not sure how I feel about it,” said Lizzie Helping, a senior at Notre Dame. “Part of me wants to say for people who would want birth control covered by their health insurance kind of knew what they were getting themselves into [at Notre Dame].”
Helping said that contraception is not available on campus, but a pharmacy that sells condoms is close by.
“You have a lot of Catholic students here who are sexually active, and who are OK with contraception. They have to deal with the doctrinal aspects of that.”
Teresa Gorman, another senior, said that she believes contraception is “immoral” and should only be used for specific medical conditions.
“I’m really glad they’re filing again,” Gorman said.
But some Catholics argue that the lawsuits represent a small, conservative faction of Catholics.
“These lawsuits don’t actually reflect what Catholics want to see for our insurance coverage,” says Meghan Smith, an associate at Catholics for Choice. “Institutions don’t have religious liberty rights; individuals do. It’s about the religious liberty of the students, faculty, and staff, who deserve to have their religious freedom respected and their individual consciences respected.”
Of sexually active Catholic women, 98% used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning at some point in their lives, according to a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute. It also found that 68% of sexually active Catholic women used “highly effective” methods of birth control — like sterilization, IUDs or the pill.
“We know that the faculty, students, alumni have spoken out [at Notre Dame],” Smith said. “And when it comes to reflecting Catholic values, we have to respect individual consciences and everybody’s right to access reproductive health care, no matter where someone happens to work or live.”
A group of philosophy graduate students at Notre Dame filed a petition in July against the original lawsuit, stating: “Although we recognize concerns regarding religious freedom ought to be taken seriously, it remains unclear whether providing access to artificial contraceptives actually would conflict with Catholic belief.”
A 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 58% of contraceptive pill users take the medication for purposes other than pregnancy prevention, and 14% of use the pill exclusively for non-contraceptive purposes — like menstrual pain, endometriosis and acne management.
John Vernon, a senior, believes that contraceptives should only be covered in “extreme medical case where someone was seriously very ill.”
“I think they’re doing the right thing, standing up for what they believe in and sticking up for the Catholic Church,” he said. “We understand: there are many students here that are not Catholic and many professors here who are not Catholic. But they decided to be here. It’s a private university; we do have a right to regulate [insurance].”
“There’s the whole spectrum [of opinions],” Helping said. “People are very much against and people are very much for it. The nice thing about being here is they can talk civilly together.”
This piece was originally published by USA Today.