WASHINGTON — The battle between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church hierarchy intensified as 43 groups — including the archdioceses of Washington and New York and the University of Notre Dame — filed lawsuits Monday challenging a new rule that requires employers or their health insurers to offer birth-control coverage to workers.
The Catholic organizations, which filed the suits in federal courts across the country, argue that the federal mandate infringes on their religious freedom because it violates church teachings.
At issue is a rule in the Obama 2010 health care law requiring contraception coverage, including the morning-after pill, at no cost. Under rules released last August, churches, mosques and other places of worship would be exempt, but not religiously affiliated groups, such as hospitals and universities.
But that did not satisfy some prominent Catholic officials. In response, the administration softened the rule this year so that religiously affiliated employers could shift the requirement for paying for contraceptive coverage onto their insurers.
Although some religious employers, such as the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, gave the eased rule a good reception, it still drew fire from the nation's Catholic bishops.
What's more, many plaintiffs in the suits argue that because they self-insure — meaning that they don't use insurance companies to assume the risk of paying their employees' health bills — even agreeing to the softened rule violates their religious beliefs. An administration official said the government wants to work with Catholic organizations on rules for self-insured organizations.
The mandate takes effect in August 2013.
"Time is running out, and our precious ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. In a prepared statement, he said the lawsuits reflect the dioceses' frustration with the administration and Congress.