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Archbishop applauds ‘historic settlement’ on HHS mandate suit

In a letter to his flock, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson celebrated the recent "historic settlement" between 74 religious organizations, including the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Catholic Charities of St. Louis, and the U.S. government over certain mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

Department of Health and Human Services regulations would have required religious organizations to provide employee health plans that included contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization procedures, in violation of their religious beliefs under threat of stiff penalties.

"The historic settlement in effect grants a permanent injunction prohibiting these regulations or any similar future regulations from being enforced against the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Catholic Charities, and the other religious organizations," Archbishop Carlson wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 23. "The U.S. Government agreed that the proposed regulations imposed a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion as guaranteed in the Constitution and violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"The regulations, if enforced, would have given the federal government unprecedented power to determine which institutions were 'religious' or not by imposing a flawed religious test. These regulations subjected Catholic institutions to crippling fines, property seizures, and other regulatory burdens and penalties, which because of this settlement are no longer possible, now or in the future."

The settlement followed the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core beliefs. On Oct. 6, the Trump administration issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate to include religious employers who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance. The Justice Department also issued guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.

The archdiocese, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Little Sisters of the Poor and dozens of religious organizations opposed the mandates, with a variety of lawsuits that ultimately were combined into one, known as Zubik v. Burwell. According to Catholic News Service, when opposition to this mandate came to the Supreme Court last year, the justices unanimously returned the case to the lower courts with instructions to determine whether employees could obtain contraceptive insurance coverage through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage.

"This historic settlement brings to an end many years of litigation, tension, and uncertainty for Catholic institutions," Archbishop Carlson wrote. "After long negotiations, offers of flawed accommodations, and many, many prayers, we have finally prevailed in this unwelcomed fight for religious liberty — a fight which was not of our making. We must remain vigilant in our defense of this first, most cherished freedom in the years to come."

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees the Freedom of Religion, one of the principles upon which the U.S. was founded. Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day represented the religions organizations.

"I am most grateful to the Jones Day law firm for their tireless efforts on our behalf in this litigation and settlement," Archbishop Carlson wrote. "To the countless men and women who have offered prayers, public witness, and material support, I also offer my heartfelt gratitude."

In conclusion, the archbishop asked, "Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us!" 

Sen. Paul Wieland

Missouri Sen. Paul Wieland, who challenged the HHS contraceptive mandate in a lawsuit several years ago, lauded the new federal regulations exempting religious organizations from having to comply.

In 2013, Wieland, R-Imperial and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Imperial, and his family sued the federal government for violating their religious liberty, free speech and parental rights because of their objections to the mandated health plan provided by the state of Missouri.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated that the Wielands obtain for themselves, and provide for their dependent daughters, health care coverage that includes coverage for "contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity."

Last year, a federal judge granted Wieland permanent protection from the federal mandate that individuals, businesses and non-church entities must purchase health insurance coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations. The case represented an unusual angle in which a family has earned a victory against the mandate, preserving their right to religious liberty, said lawyers from the Thomas More Society of Chicago. Special counsel Timothy and Matthew Belz of St. Louis-based Otten, Leggat & Belz LC also represented the family.

"We were proven to be right in what we were thinking and we're just delighted," Wieland said, referring to the victory with his case. With the new regulations, "we're hopefully at the end of this journey and that it will open up doors for other people seeking religious freedom."

— Jennifer Brinker 

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