Notre Dame Students React to Contraception Mandate Suit
by Kelsey Manning | University of Notre Dame
On Monday, some of the most influential Catholic institutions in the nation came together to file suit against the mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive services in their minimum health insurance plans.
A total of 43 different organizations filed 12 separate lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services (HHS) mandate. Among the plaintiffs were The Catholic University of America, the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, and Michigan, and the University of Notre Dame.
In a statement on Monday, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins defended the university’s lawsuit.
“Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: it is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the Government from providing such services,” Jenkins said. “Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs.
And we believe that, if the Government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to serve as its agents. 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 the statement Jenkins detailed the process of coming to this point. The ruling was handed down on Aug. 3, 2011, he said, requiring employers to provide “the objectionable services” with an exemption for “religious institutions that serve and employ primarily members of their own faith.” As a university that serves people of all different faiths, Notre Dame and other Catholic universities like it were not granted that exception.
Jenkins submitted a formal comment advocating for a broader exception on Sept. 28, but the resolution was announced to be final on Jan. 20, 2012. On Feb. 10, President Obama announced that he would try to accommodate the concerns of religious institutions, but Jenkins has since called the progress “not encouraging.” Still, he expressed his intention to continue discussion on the issue.
“We have engaged in conversations to find a resolution that respects the consciences of all and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Notre Dame students reacted to the news with varying opinions. Many reiterated Jenkins’ explanation, saying the lawsuit is not about arguing the morality of contraception, but the forcing of religious organizations to do something contrary to their beliefs.
“I think the main issue from the university’s perspective is not so much the specifics of contraception (although this is certainly part of the issue) but the government’s forcing the university to take a course of action contrary to the teachings and practices of its religious beliefs,” Larry Stansberry, a rising junior, said.
Recent Notre Dame graduate Chris Collins agreed with the university’s actions as well, asserting that the government should not be able to control the healthcare services of a private institution.
“First Amendment issues aside, as a private institution, Notre Dame should have the right to self-determine what type of healthcare plan will or will not serve its needs best,” Collins said. “The federal government isn’t equipped to understand and address the consequences of the HHS directive. The mandate places Catholic employers in the tough position of having to choose between Catholic teaching and offering healthcare to their employees and some have chosen to eliminate their healthcare plans altogether rather than provide the services mandated in the HHS directive.”
Rising junior Shelley Kim praised the lawsuit as a strong reinforcement of the Catholic character of Notre Dame, a character some have said is waning in recent years.
“Before attending Notre Dame, I had to hear a lot of skepticism and warnings about my school’s apparent waning Catholic identity,” Kim said. “For these doubters, this lawsuit is a clear statement on the University’s commitment to Catholic beliefs and stance on issues. It’s a bold and controversial move, and I respect Notre Dame for the sake of ideals and constitutionality.”
However, there were also many Notre Dame students who were outraged at the actions of the university.
“While I respect the church’s right to preach against contraception, it must permit its followers — and, especially in the case of Notre Dame, with students and faculty who aren’t even Catholic — to disagree with that teaching, especially in issues of personal health,” Chris Smith, a rising junior, said. “Someone could argue that it’s easy to go elsewhere for birth control, but that’s not necessarily true, especially for the (admittedly small) population of ND students and faculty who’d find that a tough financial burden.”
Other students, like rising Notre Dame senior Adam Cox, emphasized the importance of the university recognizing its place.
“A long-time, unofficial motto has always been ‘God, Country, Notre Dame,’” Cox said. “Those words have their ordering for a reason. Country takes precedence over Notre Dame. By establishing the university in the United States, there is a certain understanding of being under the rule of federal law. Because Notre Dame wants something does not mean that they get it.”
From a moral standpoint, Cox also argued that allowing people a personal choice is ultimately more effective than simply taking the decision out of their hands.
“When we begin to try to utilize a platform to curtail these choices for other people, we are no better, maybe even worse, then those ‘sinners’ making the choices,” Cox said. “Notre Dame has founded itself as an institution of learning, discussion, and search for truth, not political activism… Instead of grandstanding in the political and legal sphere, begin an open, honest discussion of the legal, political, and religious issues that surround this law. Teach and search for truth in the matter. Live as an example of the morals you teach. Simply telling people ‘no’ will never be nearly as lasting as having those same people choosing ‘no’ for themselves.”
Jenkins cited the “contraception mandate” as the potential beginning of the end for genuinely religious institutions, emphasizing the importance of government noninterference in such institutions.
“For if we concede that the Government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions,” he said. “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 infringements. If that happens, it will be the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name.”
On the other hand, some students have gone so far as to see the collection of lawsuits as a blatantly political act.
“Notre Dame’s decision to sue strikes me as a calculated political action in an election year,” Smith said. “The birth control controversy would never be this serious if a more Catholic-friendly president were up for reelection. New York, a very Catholic state, has mandated contraception access for years, and it’s never been a hot-button issue until now, when religious leaders see a clear tactical opportunity to attack a president who doesn’t promote their social teaching.”
With students on both sides of the issue, debate will continue until the lawsuits are addressed by the federal government. According to The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, the government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit. Only time will tell if this action will bring a compromise more acceptable to the administration of Notre Dame and the other 42 religious organizations, or if the mandate will remain as it currently stands.Kelsey Manning is an NGJ Managing Editor and a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Italian. You can follow her on Twitter @kelseyMmanning.