Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusLeaked email: Podesta pushed Tom Steyer for Obama’s Cabinet Romney: Trump victory 'very possible' Fighting for assisted living facilities MORE will visit Georgetown University on Friday for a speech that has raised Catholic ire in light of the Obama administration’s birth-control coverage mandate.
The Jesuit school has defended its invitation amid an onslaught of criticism from conservative Catholic groups and the archbishop of Washington, who recently denounced Sebelius’s work as “the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history.”
The controversy comes several months after the initial fallout over the rule, which some say violates the religious freedom of individuals who oppose birth control or consider some methods tantamount to abortion. The rule requires businesses to provide birth control coverage for their employees without a copay as part of their health plans.
Leaders in the U.S. Catholic Church have loudly called on the administration to repeal the mandate, and as recently as this week threatened to sue the government barring “prompt” action on the issue by Congress.
The threat came from lawyers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a 20-page letter to HHS.
“Absent prompt congressional attention to this infringement on fundamental civil liberties, we believe the only remaining recourse … is in the courts,” the lawyers wrote to regulators.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia has defended the invitation to Sebelius while arguing that it is not an endorsement of her or the administration’s views.
“We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas,” DeGioia said.
The secretary is also “the spouse and the mother of Georgetown graduates,” he said.
The speech will take place at an awards ceremony for Georgetown’s School for Public Policy at 11 a.m. It is not the main commencement address for Georgetown University.
DeGioia praised Sebelius in a statement and noted that students are interested in her career, including her work on the 2010 healthcare law.
He added that the invitation was made before the birth control mandate became widely controversial.
More than 90 Georgetown Public Policy students this week affirmed their choice of Sebelius, calling her an “ideal speaker.”
“Secretary Sebelius was chosen through a process devoid of political considerations or partisan ideology,” the students wrote in a letter to DeGioia.
“As students, we have learned that policymaking is about more than just positions on issues.”
A statement from HHS said that the speech “will be about honoring the achievements of these students who are devoting their careers to public policy.”
This hasn’t been enough to satisfy several conservative Catholic organizations.
Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote.org, called on Georgetown to “examine what it means to be a Catholic university.”
“They have obligations to the bishops and to the teachings of the church,” he said. “We see their invitation as a flagrant act of disunity.”
An online protest petition by the group had 37,800 signatures as of Thursday.
Another conservative group, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, blasted Sebelius, herself a Catholic, for “attacking religious liberty.”
“Secretary Sebelius has basically declared war against the Catholic Church with the HHS mandate,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel with the group, which is representing several small Catholic colleges as they mount their own lawsuits against the mandate.
“So it’s troubling that Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the United States, would invite her,” Smith said.
But Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, dismissed the backlash as “a minority view” within the church.
“When the Catholic hierarchy speaks, they very much speak for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its members,” O’Brien told The Hill.
“Who they don’t speak for is the vast majority of Catholics who use birth control and have welcomed the idea of a contraceptive coverage mandate.”
O’Brien added that most Catholics would welcome Sebelius’s visit to Georgetown because “at a university, a variety of ideas can be exchanged.”