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Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Contraceptive Coverage Rules for Pa. Catholic Dioceses

Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Contraceptive Coverage Rules for Pa. Catholic Dioceses

November 25, 2013 — A federal judge on Thursday granted the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Diocese of Erie and several affiliated not-for-profit groups a preliminary injunction against the federal contraceptive coverage rules, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports (Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/21).

The rules, implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most employers to offer the coverage to their workers. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and religiously affiliated not-for-profits are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage to their employees. Private companies are not eligible for an exemption or accommodation.

The dioceses filed suit in October, arguing in independent filings that the rules violate their rights under the First Amendment and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141) (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/9).

The Department of Justice argued that the accommodation for religiously affiliated employers protects the plaintiffs' constitutional rights while ensuring that their employees have access to contraceptive coverage, at no cost to the dioceses.

Thursday's Ruling

The preliminary injunctions block enforcement of the rules for the plaintiffs at least until U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab holds another hearing to decide whether to make the injunction permanent.

In a 65-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab said that the chances of the plaintiffs succeeding on the merits are high and that putting the rules on hold preserves the status quo while the case proceeds.

Schwab also disputed the federal government's "enigmatic" distinction between houses of worship and their affiliated religious organizations.

"Why should religious employers who provide the charitable and educational services of the Catholic Church be required to facilitate/initiate the provision of contraceptive products, services and counseling ... when religious employers who operate the houses of worship do not," Schwab wrote. He added, "To this question, the government does not provide a direct answer" (Palattella, Erie Times-News, 11/22).

Schwab said his final decision ultimately would determine whether the "Government will be permitted to sever the Catholic Church into two parts (i.e., worship and faith and 'good works') -- in other words, whether the Government will be successful in restricting the Right to the Free Exercise of Religion as set forth in the first Amendment to a Right to Worship only."

DOJ declined to comment. According to the Post-Gazette, the agency can either appeal the decision on the injunction or allow it to remain in place while the case continues (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/21).