Ric Serrano, president of Serrano’s, a local restaurant chain, voiced his concerns about the Obama administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN FILE PHOTO)
Ric Serrano, president of Serrano’s, a local restaurant chain, voiced his concerns about the Obama administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN FILE PHOTO)

A federal mandate issued by the Obama administration is the target of 44 separate lawsuits, 58 cases and 190 plaintiffs — many of them Catholic — from across the country.

The U.S. Health and Human Services measure, known as the HHS contraceptive mandate, has drawn a firestorm of criticism from a broad range of Catholic leaders nationwide who warn that it threatens to cripple or shut down Catholic institutions altogether.

The controversy erupted in August 2011, when the government announced that, as part of the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization were to be considered preventive services that must be provided at no cost to recipients.

In February, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the Obama administration proposed an exemption they said addressed religious liberty concerns. The public was invited to comment on the proposed rule through April 8.

Catholic Church leaders were unimpressed.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the mandate, rejected the religious exemption Sebelius offered. In a March 20 statement issued by Anthony Picarello, the U.S. bishops’ associate general secretary and general counsel, said that the narrow exemption proposed by Sebelius afforded no protection for Catholic “organizations that contribute most visibly to the common good through the provision of health, educational and social services.”

By narrowly defining religious institutions, the bishops said, the regulation ran the risk of marginalizing religious activity that takes place outside the confines of a church. Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Joliet, involved in adoptions, the American Family Association, Our Sunday Visitor and similar organizations with strong religious values and practices do not fall under the exemption provided by the Obama administration.

The Eternal Word Television Network filed suit against the mandate in Feb. 9, 2012, but its lawsuit was dismissed last month. In comments regarding the religious accommodation provided by the Obama administration, EWTN stated its strong objections.

“Although it claims to provide exemption, this rule literally reduces religious exemption to churches thereby forcing EWTN and anyone else with valid objections to comply,” the comment read. “In essence, this rule only permits churches, but no one else, to have religious beliefs contrary to the government’s.”

Last month, despite tens of thousands of comments opposing the religious accommodation, Sebelius confirmed that the mandate would be finalized Aug. 1. On that date, every employee who doesn’t work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the contraceptive benefit package, Sebelius said.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, hopes that the lawsuits against the contraceptive mandate will succeed.

“Their goal is nothing less than securing the freedom of the Church to continue to obey the Lord’s command — and, in turn, to serve the common good — by providing charitable ministries in health care, education and service to the poor, all without compromising Catholic beliefs,” Archbishop Lori said April 9.

Local businessman reacts

The mandate similarly has many business owners disgruntled since it requires companies with more than 50 employees to comply or face severe penalties. While not overtly Catholic or Christian, these businesses are owned by individuals who object to financing abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations.

Ric Serrano, president of Serrano’s, which operates seven East Valley Mexican food restaurants and a separate establishment named Brunchies, said his firm has 350 employees. The fines for non-compliance with the mandate, Serrano said, could ruin him.

“It’s over $500,000 a year for the penalty,” Serrano said. “That’s for all the employees that work full time or make a full time equivalency…We can’t afford it. We’re struggling as it is.”

Serrano said the eight restaurants are an LLC, owned by the family as one unit. Breaking the business apart, he said, might be one way to avoid the designation as a large employer, but that creates problems of its own.

Even if they were to cut employees’ hours down to 29 a week — thereby avoiding the designation as full-time at 30 hours — Serrano’s would still be considered a large employer, subject to the mandate.

That’s because the government takes the overall hours worked at the business, divided by 30, to arrive at fulltime equivalent employees.

“We are trying to be as positive as we can but I will tell you that things like this fly in the face of trying to be a job provider,” Serrano said. “We just pray that something changes so that… we’re able to exist beyond the implementation.”