Jim Towey, the former director of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, slapped that same office with a federal lawsuit and a few sharp words on Tuesday over the Obama Administration's birth control coverage mandate.
"It is a sad day when an American citizen or organization has no choice but to sue its own government in order to exercise religious liberty rights guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution," Towey, who is now the president of Florida's Ave Maria University, said in a conference call on Tuesday.
The legal advocacy group Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the lawsuit, on behalf of Ave Maria, in response to a new rule requiring most insurance plans to cover contraception with no co-pay, arguing that the school should not be forced to pay an insurance company that will then turn around and offer contraception coverage to its employees for free.
Under the new rule, which President Barack Obama announced February 10, if Ave Maria objects to the requirement on religious grounds, the school's insurance company will have to cover the costs of contraception for school employees, rather than the school itself. But Towey said the rule still requires the university to make a "false choice between being a good Catholic and a good citizen" by allowing its employees to receive birth control coverage through an organization it pays. He said the school administration would rather pay the $2,000 per employee, per year fine for discontinuing its entire employee health plan than allow that plan to cover birth control.
Towey also took the opportunity to publicly criticize the current incarnation of the White House Faith-Based Office, which has said has "failed President Obama badly."
"I've been sorely disappointed by the failure of the faith-based office at the White House to be helping organizations like ours be heard in this policy debate," he said. "In fact, the faith-based office seems to be leading the stampede to trample religious rights. They've been organizing conference calls and been working in ways that's just shocking to me to see how politicized that office is."
"I met with the ACLU, I met with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I met with a lot of people that hated the faith-based initiative and had opposing views to the president, but this administration will not listen to groups that do not share that ideology and I think the faith-based office has failed President Obama badly," he added.
In fact, the Faith-Based Office Towey ran under Bush was far more embroiled in political controversy than Obama's has been. Obama Administration officials met with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose views on abortion and contraception strongly oppose the president's, several times before announcing the new birth control rule and worked on a compromise based on the response he received from religious organizations around the country.
“We are proud of our effective partnerships with faith-based organizations," a White House official told HuffPost on Tuesday. "We will continue to work with a wide range of organizations to promote the common good.”
Ave Maria, an extremely conservative Catholic university started by Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, is one of many religious groups in the nation that vehemently opposes contraception coverage even if it doesn't have to pay for it. Monaghan said that he founded the school to be a "saint factory," not a "diploma factory," and the school thus prohibits birth control, premarital sex, abortion, divorce and homosexuality. Rick Santorum delivered a controversial speech there in 2008, in which he denounced Protestantism as a whole.
The religious liberty argument is likely to be a stretch in court, given the fact that the school will be exempt from having to cover birth control under the new accommodation, which shifts the burden of coverage to the insurer. But Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund, said he feels the lawsuit has a leg to stand on because the revised rule has not yet gone into effect.
"All this talk of accommodation is a promise in the future by the administration to maybe engage in some additional rule making -- that's not the law," he told reporters on Tuesday.
The Becket Fund has filed three similar lawsuits, on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University and the Eternal Word Television Network, in hopes of repealing the contraception policy.