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Are the US bishops gearing up for a lawsuit against HHS?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 15, 2011

If you read one day that the US bishops’ conference had filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, would you be surprised? Don’t be.

You already know (if you’ve been paying attention) that the Department of Health and Human Services declined to renew a grant to the US bishops’ conference for a program that aids the victims of human trafficking. HHS said that the grant could not be continued because the bishops’ program fails to provide a “full range of reproductive services”—that is, abortion and contraception—for victims.

You know, too, that Church officials saw that decision as not only unfair but flagrantly discriminatory--in effect, a punishment meted out to the Catholic Church for opposing the Obama administration on abortion.

You know that the leaders of the US bishops’ conference have placed a heavy emphasis on religious freedom, creating a new committee to monitor the problem. At their meeting in Baltimore this week, USCCB leaders have spoken frequently about the threats to religious freedom. The bishops clearly think this an important issue to raise in America today—what politicians would call a winning issue.

And speaking of politicians, a group of Republican lawmakers has demanded an explanation from HHS for the non-renewal of the USCCB grant. They, too, evidently see this as an issue that will have some resonance as the election year approaches. In his quest for re-election, President Obama cannot afford to lose support among Catholic voters. With this HHS decision, a former Bush speechwriter argues, he risks doing just that.

So we know that the bishops plan to push for their right to speak out on public affairs. And the dispute over this particular HHS grant looks like an ideal opportunity to hold the administration’s feet to the fire. With that in mind, take another look at the words of Bishop William Lori, the chairman of the new religious-freedom committee, in his comments on the HHS grant. The administration’s demand for inclusion of abortion and contraceptive services, he said, was a violation of “conscience protections that are already a matter of law.”

If the conscience protections really are clear in the existing law, and if HHS did ignore those protections in terminating the grant, the USCCB could have a strong legal case against the HHS decision. By demanding further details about that decision, the Republic senators are helping the USCCB to assess the strength of that case.

If the US bishops are ready for a fight with the Obama administration, this issue may furnish the best available opportunity for a legal challenge. And it’s hard to believe that the Obama administration would want to face a legal struggle with the Catholic hierarchy just as the re-election campaign starts rolling.

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