(by Susan Klemond)
March 27, 2013
Arguing that a U.S. District Court did not have the authority to determine Church teaching and that it misapplied a federal law protecting religious freedom, the Minnesota bishops have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals supporting two local Catholic businessmen’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over its contraception mandate.
“The Catholic bishops of Minnesota filed this brief to stand in solidarity with appellants, who are bravely contesting the legality of an unwise and unjust policy,” said Jason Adkins, executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Church’s public policy voice in Minnesota which supports the ministry of the state’s bishops.
In a suit filed in November, Stuart Lind and Tom Janas are seeking exemption from the HHS mandate, a part of the Affordable Care Act — which requires all for-profit businesses to provide and pay for health coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs for their employees — because it violates their Catholic beliefs.
The District Court denied Lind’s motion for temporary relief from the mandate so he could continue offering health insurance to employees at his medical device company, Annex Medical, while the case was pending. Among its arguments, the court determined that the requirement did not represent a “substantial burden” on Lind’s beliefs.
The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in February and granted Lind the temporary exemption until the case is decided, probably this summer or fall, said attorney Erick Kaardal of the Minneapolis-based firm Mohrman & Kaardal, P.A., who with ActRight Legal Foundation of Indiana, is representing the two men in the case.
Protecting religious liberty
The MCC brief, one of several efforts U.S. bishops are making nationwide to reverse the mandate, clarifies their role in determining Church teaching and seeks to proactively support the laity and protect freedom of religion, which may continue to be threatened in the future, Adkins said.
The federal courts do not have the “responsibility to play moral theologian and decide whether a particular tenet of Catholic belief is important or not,” he said.
The MCC argues that the court erred in applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s substantial burden test in determining whether the mandate violated Lind’s and Janas’ free exercise of religion. According to the RFRA test, the mandate does put substantial pressure on the Catholic businesses to violate their beliefs, the MCC said.
It also argues that the government has no compelling interest in requiring Lind’s and Janas’ compliance with the mandate.
According to the brief: “This subtle, yet radical, transformation of the substantial burden analysis . . . into a judicial exploration of moral theology runs contrary to black-letter law.”
The brief is helpful to Lind’s and Janas’ case because it reflects agreement on the Church’s social teaching — part of the reason they didn’t prevail in the lower court, Kaardal said. It also shows that the bishops are not separating from their flock even if the government has tried to separate them by offering only churches exemption from the mandate, he said.
The bishops’ brief shows the laity that the bishops support them and that they’re taking action, Adkins said.
“We think these laws create what we call a chilling effect on the exercise of religion and following the dictates of one’s conscience,” he said. “We hope to encourage folks that the bishops will in fact stand with them. The bishops aren’t just talking on a theoretical plain about religious freedom. They’re taking practical steps to do things about it.”
Friend-of-the-court briefs supporting plaintiffs and appellants in lawsuits against the HHS mandate have been filed on behalf of eight other dioceses around the country and the Indiana Catholic Conference by the Jones Day law firm, which filed the MCC’s brief.
Around the country
Showing support for for-profit employers, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston wrote in an August letter to Congress, “In effect, if an organization is ‘for profit,’ it is not allowed to be ‘for’ anything else. The owners who have imbued their companies with faith-based commitments to employee well-being, community service and social responsibility strongly disagree.”
In another Minnesota HHS mandate case, the owner of a St. Joseph, Minn., manufacturing company is waiting to find out if a District Court will grant him relief from the mandate while he waits for an outcome in his case, Kaardal said.
Also, a federal judge in Michigan granted relief from enforcement of the mandate in a suit brought by Tom Monaghan, founder and former owner of Domino’s Pizza, and his property management company. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Missouri struck down part of a Missouri law protecting conscience rights of those who object to the mandate.
In addition, the U.S. bishops are supporting conscience protection legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate voted down similar legislation last week.
Lind’s and Janas’ case is among many current threats to religious liberty, and Adkins said it could have a ripple effect on future cases.
“We need to be working in the courts and in the legislatures to proactively be protecting religious liberty or any new types of violations that may occur down the road,” he said.