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D.C. archdiocese, other Catholic groups file suit against birth-control mandate

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More than a dozen Catholic bishops — including Washington’s — sued the Obama administration on Monday, ratcheting up the standoff between church officials and the White House over a government mandate requiring employers to provide contraception coverage.

Catholic bishops were already leading the fight against the mandate, which requires most religious organizations to provide the coverage, although houses of worship are exempt. Other conservative religious organizations had filed lawsuits this year. But Monday’s 12 lawsuits on behalf of 43 separate institutions involved only Catholics and for the first time included 13 dioceses — the seats of the bishops themselves.

The federal lawsuits accuse the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of violating the First Amendment and federal law by requiring Catholic organizations to “sacrifice their beliefs in order to be able to continue their mission of serving all people in need,” said a statement from the Archdiocese of Washington. “There is no way out of the dilemma the mandate forces upon us.”

Some legal experts said the suits could face trouble mostly because of timing. The mandate does not fully take effect until August 2013, and the White House is still taking comments on a proposed adjustment it made to try to satisfy opponents.

“I think all these lawsuits are legally premature,” said Ira Lupu, professor at the George Washington University School of Law. But he added that if courts do hear any of the suits, including those filed Monday or the earlier ones, it is hard to predict whether they will find that the law limits the freedom of Catholic institutions.

“Both sides have very respectable sets of arguments,” he said.

He also noted that the Supreme Court could throw out the health-care law passed by Congress, of which the mandate is a part. In addition, if Mitt Romney wins the presidential election in November, he has said he would kill the mandate.

The 13 dioceses involved Monday are a small handful of the country’s total of 195. Still, the symbolism was notable at a time when leading Catholic bishops have named as their top priority what they characterize as an assault by the White House on religious freedom.

Local parties to the lawsuits were: the Archdiocese of Washington — which includes the District and suburban Maryland — Catholic University of America, Catholic Charities, Archbishop Carroll High School and the Consortium of Catholic Academies. Other institutions across the country that filed parallel suits include the Archdiocese of New York and the dioceses of Dallas and Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Ind., and Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

Previous lawsuits were filed by various conservative religious institutions, including the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic news organization, and Ave Maria University in Florida.

The arguments in all the suits sound familiar in an election year when the size and power of government is at issue. The cases attack the mandate, which says that most employers, religious or otherwise, must include contraception coverage in health-care plans for employees. Exempted are houses of worship, defined as places that serve and employ people of one faith. The lawsuits argue that the government has no right to define what is a purely religious organization.

The bishops have opposed the mandate since it was proposed last year, saying it violates Catholic teachings to even indirectly provide contraception coverage, including to non-Catholic women who work for Catholic organizations. “It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and fund services which violate their religious beliefs,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

The lawsuit is part of a broader communications campaign launched Monday by the archdiocese called “Preserve Religious Freedom,” which features a special prayer to be said daily at 3 p.m. to support the effort.

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