+ January 30, 2014

Defending Religious Freedom in Court

Dear Friends,

Today, the Diocese of Cheyenne along with five other Catholic institutions filed a lawsuit to challenge the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate which requires religious organizations to violate their conscience and the Church’s teaching.  As you may be aware, the mandate requires employers to provide their employees with access to contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs through their group health plans, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

Joining the diocese in this lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming, are four of our related organizations: Catholic Charities of Wyoming, St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, St. Anthony Tri-Parish School in Casper and John Paul II Catholic School in Gillette.  The Wyoming Catholic College is the fifth plaintiff joining the lawsuit filed today.

Federal law, including the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution, guarantees religious organizations the right to practice their faith free from government interference.  It is true that the Mandate contains an exemption for so-called “religious employers.”  However, the definition of religious employer is so narrow that many of our institutions that carry out the Gospel mandate to serve the poor, the young, those in distress, do not qualify.  Even though the Diocese of Cheyenne is recognized as a religious employer, four of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do not qualify, and these organizations provide their employees’ health insurance through the diocesan group health insurance plan.  The Wyoming Catholic College also fails to qualify as a religious employer, but provides health insurance to their employees through a separate plan.

Also, you may be aware that the mandate allows for a so-called ‘accommodation’ to those institutions who claim that providing the objectionable services would require them to violate their conscience and Church teaching.  However, the ‘accommodation’ requires these organizations to complete a certificate which authorizes either their insurance provider or a third-party administrator to provide the drugs and services which we find morally objectionable.  The organizations must also take numerous additional steps to ensure that their employees receive access to the mandated coverage, including identifying and contracting with an insurance provider or third-party administrator willing to provide the mandated coverage and then maintaining a health plan that will serve as the conduit for the delivery of the very products and services to which the organization objects.   Thus, the accommodation in fact provides no relief to the burden of conscience.  It merely makes us complicit in authorizing someone else to do what we are claiming the government has no right to require.  Thus, this lawsuit is about religious freedom.

For Catholics, the practice of faith always requires more than acts of worship.  For us, faith is more than belief in God and freely worshiping the God of our faith.  Faith necessarily entails ‘acts of faith,’ such as feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, education, in short, faith entails the practice of charity.  Jesus’ summation of the commandments teaches that love of God leads to love of neighbor.  St. James also teaches that “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  (James 2:14-26)  The last judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel also makes it clear that we will be judged by how well we love our neighbor.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI clearly taught that for the Church, “the exercise of charity is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.  The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”  (God Is Love, #22)  Because Christ commissioned the Church to ‘go into the world and proclaim the Good News’, (Mark 16:15), religious freedom cannot be restricted to freedom of worship.

In August, as we began to review the implications on our various institutions of the mandate final rule, I was dumbfounded and disheartened to understand why the federal government is making it so difficult for people of faith to exercise their faith for the common good of society.  The message of the mandate is clear; keep your religious beliefs private or face financial penalties.  This is one of the strongest reasons the decision was made by the diocese and the plaintiffs to resist this mandate, even knowing that other similar lawsuits are now making their way through the court system.

The guarantee of religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment and federal law, however, was not meant to protect merely the right to worship, but also the right to contribute through acts of faith to the common good of society.  Up until now, our government has chosen to honor this right.  Never before has the government contested that institutions such as Catholic Charities of Wyoming or St. Joseph’s Children’s Home or St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School are religious.  But the government’s conception of what constitutes the practice of religion is so narrow that it must be contested and ultimately overruled.  Such a law cannot stand.

The Church did not choose this fight.  The federal government has departed from longstanding practice and precedent to change the law; our response merely aims to preserve our constitutional rights to practice our religious beliefs with freedom for the common good.

I ask for your prayers during this time.  I especially ask that each of us, and all members of our faith-family, practice our faith with enthusiasm, joy, and love.  This is the ultimate witness and testimony that assures our government and society they have nothing to fear from the free exercise of religion, and everything to gain, as our practice of faith helps to make the world a better place, and our society strong.

With assurances of prayer, I remain,

In The Heart of Christ,


The Most Reverend Paul D. Etienne, DD, STL

Bishop of Cheyenne