Those HHS rules head to court (once again)

It's safe to say that several major themes continue to manifest themselves in most -- but not all -- of the mainstream news reports about the religious liberty cases linked to those Health and Human Services mandates on religious organizations. If you looked inside your local newspaper, you may have seen coverage of the latest major development in this story. Frankly, I was surprised at the meager coverage in some major newspapers. More on that in a minute.

Let's start with the bad. If you want to see a perfect example of how not to cover this story, then look at the news report offered by the Tribune News Service bureau here inside the DC Beltway. This was the story I read this morning inside The Baltimore Sun.

This one rings all of the wrong bells. Let's walk through a few key elements:

WASHINGTON -- The battle between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church hierarchy intensified as 43 groups -- including the archdioceses of Washington and New York, and the University of Notre Dame -- filed lawsuits Monday challenging a new rule that requires employers or their health insurers to offer birth-control coverage to workers.

The Catholic organizations, which filed the suits in federal courts across the country, argue that the federal mandate infringes on their religious freedom because it violates church teachings.

Catholics vs. the Obama White House. Check. Also, it should be noted that the key to the religious liberty claims is not that these new federal rules violate church teachings. The problem is that the mandates require religious institutions to violate their own doctrines, traditions and teachings.

As has sadly become the norm, the story quotes the Obama administration's views of this dispute as fact, without any debate allowed between legal teams on both sides. And then there is this summary statement:

The lawsuits are the latest in a series of battles over contraception and women's health. In recent weeks, for example, Georgetown University was criticized by conservative Catholic officials for inviting Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, to give this year's commencement address.

Oh well. That one doesn't even offer an accurate statement of Georgetown's take on that controversy -- since it is misleading to state that the pro-abortion-rights Sebelius spoke in "this year's commencement address." She was a featured speaker during one of the graduation events for an individual school within the university, not the keynote speaker in the large undergraduate commencement rite. Liberal Catholics will care about that detail.

However, the key hole in this story is that -- once again -- it describes the conflict (a) as a Catholics vs. White House affair about (b) birth control (other than the fact that some of those nasty bishops keep yelling about religious freedom).

Here's the key fact that you need to look for in your local coverage: The simple recognition that non-Catholic groups, including many that do not oppose birth control, are also filing lawsuits against the Obama administration. For example, The New York Times ever-so-briefly notes that:

At least 11 other Catholic and evangelical organizations had already filed lawsuits challenging the mandate, but those cases are still pending.

A few more words would have helped, of course, but that's a start. The Washington Post, meanwhile, keeps the focus on the Catholics while -- if the reader chases a few hyperlinks in the coverage -- it is possible to learn that other "conservative groups" are involved.

More than a dozen Catholic bishops -- including Washington’s -- sued the Obama administration on Monday, ratcheting up the standoff between church officials and the White House over a government mandate requiring employers to provide contraception coverage.

Catholic bishops were already leading the fight against the mandate, which requires most religious organizations to provide the coverage, although houses of worship are exempt. Other conservative religious organizations had filed lawsuits this year. But Monday’s 12 lawsuits on behalf of 43 separate institutions involved only Catholics and for the first time included 13 dioceses -- the seats of the bishops themselves.

Might any of those "conservative groups" have branches in Washington, D.C., or this powerful region? Who knows.

Meanwhile, it was that quest for solid local angles that helped one of the nation's top religion writers -- Ann Rodgers, in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette -- find her way to the very details that other journalists will need to locate for their readers. She also notes that the legal team behind the new lawsuits is, to say the least, a rather important one:

The global law firm Jones Day is representing all 43 plaintiffs at no charge. ... The lawsuits seek exemptions from the provisions of the law to which the religious organizations object and a permanent injunction barring government enforcement of those provisions. Until this is resolved, the lawsuit said, "Plaintiffs are uncertain as to their rights and duties in planning, negotiating, and/or implementing their group health insurance plans, their hiring and retention programs, and their social, educational, and charitable programs and ministries."

Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and the Catholic Cemeteries Association joined the diocese as plaintiffs. Other plaintiffs from the region are the Diocese of Erie and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The University of Notre Dame and the Catholic University of America are among other prominent plaintiffs. Twelve suits were filed.

Monday's litigation blitz doubles the number of lawsuits over the contraceptive rule to 24. Geneva College, an evangelical Protestant school in Beaver falls, filed a similar suit in February. Although it has no moral qualms about standard contraception, it objected to required coverage for morning-after drugs. A statement last month from 18 religious leaders from southwestern Pennsylvania, some from traditions that support public access to contraception and abortion, cited broad religious liberty concerns in opposing the mandate.

That wasn't all that hard, was it?

Now, if there are major regional news hooks in this story for a journalist in Pittsburgh, might this also be the case in places such as Los Angeles, Washington, New York City, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, etc., etc.?

Just asking. If you see stories that do find the local and-or non-Catholic angles, please let us know in the comments section.

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