The Archdiocese of Atlanta has placed itself squarely in the midst of a national fight over what it believes is an attack against religious freedom during a hotly contested election.
The archdiocese recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies over the birth control insurance mandate.
The lawsuit is among a dozen or so that have recently been filed in federal courts across the nation, in what some experts see as a strategy to ensure the issue winds up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leading the legal challenge here is Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, 64, whom many describe as a deliberate thinker and a person able to work with different groups, yet not afraid to stand his ground. Other plaintiffs include the Diocese of Savannah, Catholic Charities Atlanta and Christ the King Catholic School.
“This isn’t a disagreement over whether sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs or contraception are morally good or bad — we’ve had those disagreements for years without getting into religious freedom,” said Gregory, who was appointed Atlanta’s sixth archbishop in 2004 by Pope John Paul II. “For two generations, people have been free to do these things — and they still are and will be, regardless of how the case turns out — but we’ve never before been forced by government to help them do it. The difference now is that the federal government is trying to force people who take the minority view on these controversial questions to act in violation of their moral and religious beliefs or face the punishment of law.”
But Eugene Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, said it’s not a matter of religious liberty.
“I don’t think that argument has any merits,” he said. “I think its another attempt for the bishops to influence elections and politics. But the problem today is the polls show most Catholics don’t agree with the bishops on contraceptives. Today, most Catholics have more education than in the olden days when the bishops could tell them what to think. … The bishops really don’t have much credibility because of the child abuse scandal. Why would anyone listen to them in terms of morality and contraceptives?”
As part of the new federal health care law, the Affordable Care Act, most employers are required to provide workers free birth control as part of their health insurance. Houses of worship are allowed to opt out, but religiously affiliated charities and institutions, such as colleges and hospitals, are not. In an attempt at compromise, President Barack Obama offered to make insurers instead of religious groups pay for birth control.
The Obama administration recently amended the Affordable Care Act’s regulations to make certain that no enforcement actions will be taken against religious institutions through at least Jan. 1, 2014. Meanwhile, the administration will propose and finalize amendments to the law to accommodate religious objections to covering contraceptive services, according to a Justice Department filing in response to a similar lawsuit filed by the archbishop of Washington and Catholic University.
Gregory, in emailed responses to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the exemption for religious employers was too intrusive and limited.
Gregory is no stranger to being on the thorny side of a tough issue.
In 2001, he was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As president, Gregory sought to quell the escalating sex abuse crisis by implementing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a comprehensive set of procedures used to address allegations of abuse and includes guidelines on accountability, transparency, healing and preventing future abuse.
“The archbishop usually thinks things through very carefully,” said the Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza, archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, who has known Gregory for three decades. “Once he has thought through an issue and is convinced of it, he will make a very strong decision. He doesn’t make snap decisions, that’s for sure.”
Fiorenza said that since the Archdiocese of Atlanta and its affiliated institutions are self-insured, Gregory might be concerned that if an exemption is not granted, it could have a severe impact on the archdiocese.
“There’s a severe penalty for not complying with the mandate. That could be why he took the step to join some of the other dioceses,” Fiorenza said. “We define what we think is a church and not the government. Really, that’s the crux of the problem. They’re trying to say our social services and educational institutions are not integral to who we are as a church.”
Pat Chivers, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the lawsuit has been in the works for some time. Gregory, she said, serves on the bishops’ religious liberty committee “and he’s been part of the strategy all along.”
It’s likely not to be the last lawsuit filed, Chivers said. “Each lawsuit is a little different,” she said, “and each (federal court) circuit is a little different.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said by filing separate lawsuits, Catholic institutions opposed to the mandate now have the benefit of having multiple verdicts and “more chances of winning.”
“And if you win some and lose some, it’s more likely you will get to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Chemerinsky said. “The U.S. Supreme Court takes cases when there are disagreements among the lower courts. Sometimes lawyers do that as a rhetorical strategy to convey the message that they will challenge this as much as they can, whenever they can.”
Thomas Arthur, a professor and former dean at Emory University’s School of Law, agrees.
“One of the reasons to have different lawsuits filed is to create what is known as a conflict among the circuits,” he said. If there are several cases and all are resolved the same way, he said, then higher courts will say “we don’t need to take this because the lower courts all seem to be of the same mind about this.”
A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 55 percent of the Catholics who have heard about the mandate controversy believe that religiously affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives should be exempt.
Opinions also vary among Catholics in metro Atlanta.
“I think it’s a long time coming for Atlanta to join the lawsuits,” said Ken Baudry, an engineering and real estate consultant who lives in Sandy Springs. “The government has really overstepped its bounds, and I think (the mandate) steps on what we believe in. The teachings of the church says contraception is not correct, and we should not be pushed to provide that for our employees and families.”
“As Catholics, we believe that life begins at conception and that we shouldn’t play God with birth control and abortion,” said Sarah Vabulas, 29, who writes a blog called “Catholic Drinkie” about being a Catholic and a beer enthusiast.
But Sonya Strider, 44, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, supports abortion rights and said filing a lawsuit “is probably what’s expected of the Catholic leadership.”
“I feel that health insurance is so important to women,” said the parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Atlanta. “Just because it’s offered, it doesn’t mean you have to get it. It goes back to personal choice.”