HHS Litigation

Let me turn briefly to the recent settlement of a lawsuit involving the University against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regarding the provision of contraceptive drugs and services.

In 2012, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government through its Department of Health and Human Services adopted a rule obliging organizations to provide contraceptive drugs and procedures in their health care plans. While certain religious institutions, such as parishes, were exempt, charitable organizations, hospitals, schools and universities were not. This policy, which departed from a long tradition of federal law, was the result not of legislative process but administrative decree. We found it gravely concerning, for if the government can decide unilaterally which religious organizations, to what extent and on what issues can claim exception on the basis of their religious teaching, then they have lost any meaningful religious freedom in the face of the imposition of governmental power.

"...if Notre Dame does not strongly assert its right to follow Catholic teachings free from government dictates, it could lose its ability to assert those rights in matters that are far more grave from a Catholic perspective."

It was to defend this principle of religious freedom that Notre Dame joined other institutions in a lawsuit. While other institutions were successful in staying implementation of the rule, the University was not. When a federal district court decided that the University should comply with the rule, we did so, sending out a notice to employees and doing what was required as various accommodations were developed to provide the services in question through our insurance providers, Meritain and Optum.

The various cases from the appellate courts were consolidated in a case called Zubik v. Burwell in an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court encouraged the parties to resolve differences as it remanded cases back to the United States Courts of Appeals. A settlement was recently reached with the U.S. Department of Justice and more than 70 religious entities and dioceses. We welcomed this result, for it gives the University the freedom to make decisions in accord with its principles free from government interference.

As I have said from the start, the University’s interest has never been in preventing access to those who make conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. Our interest, rather, has been to avoid being compelled by the federal government to be the agent in their provision. I understand very well the controversial nature of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraceptives, and I understand that both those who are not and even many who are Catholic conscientiously disagree with it. However, with ever greater government pressures and an environment ever less hospitable to religious institutions, if Notre Dame does not strongly assert its right to follow Catholic teachings free from government dictates, it could lose its ability to assert those rights in matters that are far more grave from a Catholic perspective.

Our Human Resources staff learned, as was recently announced, that contraceptive services will continue to be provided directly to employees through Meritain and Optum. This will allow employees who choose to do so to acquire contraceptives directly through these insurance providers, without the University’s direct  involvement. The University will not interfere with this practice. 

Of my many responsibilities as President of this institution, I take none more seriously than the maintenance of its distinctive Catholic mission, and I find none more challenging. While upholding that mission, we strive to be a welcoming place for those of other faiths and other perspectives. We recognize that there are points of tension, and I am grateful for your patience on this difficult issue and for your commitment to this community.

There are other important issues, but due to limits of time, I will not be able to discuss them at length. I will say briefly that we continue to work on diversity and inclusion across areas of the University. We are also lobbying lawmakers to support legislation that will protect our DACA students and give them a secure future in this country. 

Notre Dame at this time celebrates so many successes and enjoys so much promise. At the same time, we recognize very real threats from various quarters. Despite these threats, I have the highest confidence in our ability to navigate them. My confidence arises above all from the University’s greatest asset, the people who make it up. 

Our students are talented young people of character, and the dedication of our staff to this institution is, I believe, unsurpassed in higher education. The reputation of this institution, and its ability to do the work of teaching and research at such a high level, is due to you, the faculty. But it is your talent, creativity, accomplishments and dedication to scholarship and teaching that are the foundation that makes this University strong enough to withstand any challenges. Thank you for providing this foundation, thank you for listening and thank you for all you do for Notre Dame.