Charities may have to ask clients, ‘Are you Catholic?’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has been helping people in need in Cook and Lake counties for 95 years — a track record of service that could come to an end if the federal courts do not overturn rules that would require the agency to violate church teaching.

That’s why the agency joined a lawsuit already filed in federal district court on July 9, asking the court to stop the government from enforcing a Department of Health and Human Services mandate that says employers must include contraception coverage in employee health plans at no additional cost. There is a religious exemption, but it is so narrow that it would exclude Catholic Charities.

The point of the lawsuit is bigger than whether the government can require Catholic institutions to offer coverage for contraceptive drugs, sterilizations and other services that conflict with church teaching; the point is that the U.S. government is claiming that it gets to decide which institutions are Catholic, and what that means for religious freedom.

“It’s the first time the government has told an organization whether or not they are Catholic or religious,” said Msgr. Michael Boland, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “They are usurping the role of the local bishop.”

If the suits are successful, Boland said, “the most important thing is that religious freedom will be respected. If religious freedom continues to get watered down, it will have a very negative effect on the country.”

Forty-three Catholic institutions, including dioceses, hospitals, universities and other Catholic Charities agencies joined in filing 12 similar lawsuits in district courts across the country on May 21. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago formally joined the lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois by the Dioceses of Joliet and Springfield and their respective Catholic Charities organizations.

Jones Day, an international law firm, is handling all the suits on a pro bono basis.

The suits all turn on the idea that the government can decide what qualifies as a religious employer. Under the mandate an employer must meet four criteria to be consider religious: that it “has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”; primarily employs people “who share its religious tenets”; primarily serves people “who share its religious tenets”; and is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Several other Catholic institutions had already filed their own lawsuits before May 21, and non- Catholic religious institutions including the evangelical Wheaton College have also filed suit.

Moving forward

Boland said his agency did not join the lawsuit when it was first filed because officials wanted to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down the entire Affordable Health Care Act. If so, the rules that HHS promulgated for how to comply with the law would become moot.

“Since the decision was not positive, we decided to go forward,” Boland said.

The Catholic groups took legal action after seeing religious rights eroded on the state and federal level over the past two to three years, Boland told the Catholic New World.

The federal government shut Catholic agencies out of contracts for helping victims of human trafficking because the Catholic groups would not provide or refer them for abortions or contraceptives, and in Illinois, Catholic Charities groups lost state contracts to provide foster care services because they would not place children in homes with unmarried couples, including same- or opposite- sex couples with civil unions.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago was not directly affected because it had already stopped providing foster care when it couldn’t get liability insurance.

Serving all

The services Catholic Charities do provide run the gamut from providing counseling and other services to pregnant and parenting teens to homemaking and home health care for senior citizens. There are child development centers, help settling refugees into new lives, housing and other services for veterans in danger of being homeless.

And there are the meals. Meals provided to families who take home food from emergency pantries when the money runs out before the month does, communal meals for senior citizens that provide a chance to socialize as well as eat, Meals on Wheels for those who can’t get out, summer meals for school-age kids who don’t get school lunches during the long vacation and suppers for the homeless and those in need.

In doing so, the agency and the Catholics who support it are fulfilling the Gospel mandates in Chapter 25 of Matthew.

“HHS fails to understand that there is no distinction between our Catholic faith and our commitment to serve the needs of all people regardless of their religion,” Boland said in a statement released the day Catholic Charities joined the lawsuit.

Catholic Charities served more than a million people in Cook and Lake counties last year, with 158 programs. It has a staff of about 2,700 people and a volunteer corps of 17,000.

How many of those people — those who provide and those who receive services — are Catholic? Boland has no idea.

“We don’t ask them,” he said. “But we’ll have to next August.”