The federal lawsuit filed by the St. Louis Archdiocese and Catholic Charities of St. Louis on Monday over the birth control insurance mandate plan by the administration of President Barack Obama opens with an expansive declaration.
"This lawsuit is about one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference," the complaint began. "American history and tradition ... safeguard religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action."
The lawsuit is not only sweeping in its wording. It is also part of a comprehensive effort, spearheaded by the U.S. bishops and Catholic conservatives, to challenge the federal government in the courts.
Bishops rarely coordinate the filing of federal lawsuits as 13 of them did Monday when a total of 43 Catholic organizations filed 12 lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in eight states and the District of Columbia.
The plaintiffs include 13 dioceses and the University of Notre Dame, and their action represents the largest push against the mandate since Obama announced the policy in January. There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States.
The other federal lawsuits were filed in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, Indiana and Illinois — with plaintiffs including the Catholic Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.
"This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission, and its significance goes well beyond any debate about contraceptives," said Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, who famously awarded Obama an honorary degree in 2009 despite anger from U.S. bishops.
The Obama administration and its allies, including some Catholic groups, reject those assertions and say a proposed compromise to the mandate effectively bypasses any entanglement in birth control coverage by faith-based groups.
A Health and Human Services spokeswoman told The Associated Press the department does not comment on pending litigation.
One of the plaintiffs, Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, announced last week that it was dropping its health insurance coverage because the mandate would force it to violate Catholic teaching. But the university's insurance policy indicates it is exempt from the mandate.
Other Christians have joined the Catholic church in protesting what they believe was an over-reach by the Obama administration when it announced that as a part of the new health care law, religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, would be required to include free contraception coverage for women.
In March, thousands converged on the Missouri capital to decry what they said was the government's intrusion of their basic religious rights as Americans.
In February, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, told a panel of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives that the St. Louis-based denomination 'stand(s) with our friends in the Catholic Church" in opposition to the contraception ruling.
In a letter addressed to St. Louis Catholics dated Monday, Carlson said the Catholic church "has pursued every imaginable avenue to correct this problem without litigation."
Carlson's words echoed those of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York's archbishop and president of the U.S. bishops' conference.
"We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress — and we'll keep at it — but there's still no fix," Dolan said in a statement. "Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now."
The U.S. bishops' conference is not party to any of the lawsuits.
In February, in response to the political furor, Obama offered to soften the contraception rule so that insurers, instead of religious groups, would pay for birth control. However, the bishops and others have said that the accommodation doesn't go far enough.
The part of the mandate that deals with religious groups does not go into effect for more than a year, and the Obama administration is currently processing feedback from Catholic groups — including many who filed lawsuits — on how to accommodate their concerns in the final regulation.
In a news conference Monday afternoon at the archdiocese's headquarters in Shrewsbury, Carlson said that "any scenario that forces our St. Louis area hospitals, schools and charities to close would be devastating to the many people employed and served by these institutions."
Asked by reporters if closing Catholic hospitals in St. Louis was a possibility should the archdiocese's lawsuit be unsuccessful, rather than violate Catholic teaching, Carlson said that he hoped the lawsuit would prevent such a measure. Pressed on whether hospitals could close, he said that "we have not considered that possibility at this time."
Carlson said the money to pursue a federal lawsuit against the Obama administration would not come from the archdiocese's Annual Catholic Appeal, but he would only say the legal action would be funded by "a source."
Last week, Carlson sent a letter to his priests, informing them that he'd set up a task force "to educate the faithful about this issue," and launched a "Campaign for Religious Liberty" that will last from Sunday until Nov. 25.
The phrase "most cherished freedom," the recent slogan of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Religious Liberty, showed up throughout the country Monday, in statements from the bishops, in their news conferences and in the lawsuit itself.
"Religious liberty," Carlson said in his own remarks to reporters Monday, "is our first, most-cherished freedom and it requires constant vigilance and protection or it will be lost. ... I cannot remain silent while the right of Catholics to practice our faith is eroded."
The Associated Press and Religion News Service contributed to this report.