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Government Responds to Catholic Contraceptive Coverage Case; ACLU Asks To Submit Brief

Government Responds to Catholic Contraceptive Coverage Case; ACLU Asks To Submit Brief

April 15, 2014 — In court filings last week, attorneys for the federal government outlined several arguments against a request from a group of Catholic organizations in Wyoming for an injunction to block the federal contraceptive coverage rules, the AP/Kansas City Star reports (Neary, AP/Kansas City Star, 4/11).

The rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most insurers to offer contraceptive coverage in their employer-sponsored health plans. 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.

Case Details

In February, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., and several Catholic schools and charities filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the rules.

They argued that the requirements violate the groups' constitutional right to religious freedom. The suit states that religious schools and charities do not meet the government's definition of "religious employers" and would have to provide the coverage (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/3).

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl has scheduled a court hearing for early next month on the organizations' request for an injunction to stop the federal government from enforcing the requirements while the lawsuit proceeds.

Federal Response

In their response, lawyers for the federal government urged Skavdahl to deny the request for an injunction, stating that the Diocese of Cheyenne is already exempt from the contraceptive coverage rules based on a similar injunction previously issued in a comparable case in Tennessee.

ACLU Asks To Submit Amicus Brief

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed papers asking Skavdahl to allow it to submit an amicus brief supporting the federal government's position, the AP/Washington Times reports.

ACLU of Wyoming attorney Jen Horvath said the group seeks to participate in the case because it has previously worked to protect women's right to access reproductive health care.

According to Hovarth, the group plans to argue that requiring the Catholic groups to complete the certification exempting them from the rules would not place an undue burden on their religious freedom. She said the rule only "requires the Diocese of Cheyenne to send a two-page form to their third-party administrator, basically the health care plan, that due to religious objections, they want to exclude contraceptive coverage from their health care, their health insurance." She added, "It's no different materially from what they had to do before this rule went into effect and it's not a burden on their religious freedom" (Neary, AP/Washington Times, 4/14).

In addition, the attorneys said that the Wyoming Catholic College, which is also a plaintiff in the case, is covered under a separate injunction issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in a different pending case. According to the AP/Star, the college provides insurance through the same church plan involved in the other case.

Further, the federal attorneys argued that the remaining plaintiffs in the case can choose to sign a certification that they meet the religious criteria and therefore do not have to provide the coverage. The filing stated that requiring the groups to do so does not violate their religious freedoms "because the regulations don't require plaintiffs to change their behavior in any significant way."

In addition, the response noted that the groups' "extraordinary contention suggests that plaintiffs not only seek to avoid paying for, administering, or otherwise providing contraceptive coverage itself, but also seek to prevent the women they employ from obtaining such coverage, even through other parties."

Groups Respond

The Rev. Carl Gallinger, vicar general of the Cheyenne diocese, on Friday said that church officials still think they have strong disagreements with the federal government over the interpretation of the rules. "[W]e look forward to the opportunity to present those to court at the hearing next month," he said (AP/Kansas City Star, 4/11).