COLUMBUS - A Roman Catholic school's lawsuit over the federal mandate requiring most employers to cover birth control should be dismissed because the institution hasn't shown that it faces the immediate threat of harm, the U.S. Justice Department said in a court filing Monday.
Franciscan University of Steubenville and an association of Michigan Roman Catholic dioceses say the mandate violates religious freedom by requiring a Catholic entity such as the university to comply.
President Barack Obama offered to soften the mandate to accommodate religious groups, but U.S. Catholic bishops say the change doesn't go far enough.
The rule was announced as part of the federal health care law - and came under fire in February from religious groups that object to the use of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. In response to the criticism, Obama's administration has said it would shift the requirement from the employers to health insurers themselves.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit.
"The filing of the motion to dismiss was expected. It is almost routine in these types of cases." said Tom Sofio, Franciscan University of Steubenville spokesperson.
Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing late Monday that the school and dioceses are protected from the mandate's requirements until at least 2014. They also said the lawsuit isn't timely because changes are already being made to the regulations to meet the concerns of religious groups.
"This is simply not a case where plaintiffs are forced to choose between foregoing lawful activity and risking substantial legal sanctions," Justice Department attorneys wrote.
"It's important to point out that we did not file a lawsuit about what the federal government might do. We filed over what has been already written into law," Michael Hernon, vice president of advancement for the university said.
"No accommodation has been made since the Department of Health and Human Services finalized its rule 'without change' on Feb. 15. So nothing has changed in regard to the moral problems that prompted Franciscan University's lawsuit," Hernon stated.
Obama administration officials have said they don't want to abridge anyone's religious freedom, but want to give women access to important preventive care. Supporters of the rule, including women's advocacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, say the measure is about female health.
The university has said the requirement makes it impossible to operate freely as a Catholic institution.
The lawsuit in Ohio is similar to a separate case in Nebraska in which attorneys general from seven states, including Ohio, had asked a federal judge to block the Obama administration mandate. A Nebraska federal judge dismissed the suit last month, saying the states failed to prove they would suffer immediate harm once that part of the law is enacted. U.S. District Court Judge Warren K. Urbom also noted that Obama's administration has agreed to work with religious groups to try to address their concerns.
(Staff writer Dave Gossett contributed to this story.)