Saints be praised! The University of Notre Dame has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over its now infamous mandate requiring religious institutions and their insurers to pay for abortifacients, sterilization and contraception in violation of their rights of religious liberty and self-definition.
In a statement posted on the university's website, and transmitted by e-mail to many stakeholders, Father John Jenkins, its president, announced the action. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.
In nine counts the Irish allege that the government violated Notre Dame's rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs rule-making by federal agencies. All in all, the pleadings are a fine piece of legal craftsmanship by the national law firm of Jones Day and the university's general counsel.
Unusual for most legal pleadings, Notre Dame's complaint generates passion in its allegations:
This lawsuit is about one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference. It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception…. But the right to such services does not authorize the Government to force the University of Notre Dame… to violate its own conscience by making it provide, pay for, and/or facilitate those services to others, contrary to its sincerely held religious beliefs. American history and tradition, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protects religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action. Notre Dame therefore seeks relief in this Court to protect this most fundamental of American rights.
Father Jenkins bends over backwards in his public announcement to affirm that "We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others; we simply ask that the Government not impose its values on the University when those values conflict with our religious teachings."
In case the Obama administration did not get the message, coming from the head of an institution that only recently invited the President to give a commencement address and receive an honorary degree, Father Jenkins rejected the right of government to define the mission of his and other religious institutions.
"For if one Presidential Administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another Administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringement," argued Jenkins. "If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name."
It seems that Father Jenkins knows well the writings of James Madison as well as St. Thomas More.
I will leave further legal analysis to constitutional scholars, but the political implications of this lawsuit are quite stunning. One of America's leading Catholic institutions, which was previously perceived to be in President Obama's camp, at least on health care issues, is now compelled to seek legal redress in federal court to overturn a violation of its religious integrity by that very same President.
If Catholics are truly the "jump ball" of American presidential politics, this has to be a very big minus for President Obama's re-election campaign. More importantly, it puts the President on the wrong side of the religious liberty issue and thereby alienates many Americans who have no truck with Catholic doctrine or practice. In sum, President Obama has managed to coalesce an ecumenical front against him over the right, not just to worship in a church or cloister, but to practice one's religion freely, in the public square, as an individual and as part of a collective body of fellow worshipers.