WASHINGTON — A U.S. District Court judge Dec. 20 changed a preliminary injunction to a permanent one barring enforcement of the federal health care law's contraceptive mandate against the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses.
Judge Arthur J. Schwab of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania issued the ruling after attorneys representing the federal government said they had no new evidence to offer in support of the mandate. The government was expected to appeal his decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Two months earlier, in granting the preliminary injunction, Schwab said a religious employer's right to adhere to moral objections to the contraceptive mandate outweighs a government decision to widen access to contraceptives.
But the same day Schwab issued his permanent injunction, rulings handed down in lawsuits filed by other Catholic entities brought mixed results for the plaintiffs.
Suits brought by the Washington Archdiocese, Priest for Life and the University of Notre Dame were dismissed in their respective jurisdictions; both the Catholic organization Legatus and a group of ministries associated with the Southern Baptists were granted preliminary injunctions in their respective courts.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Archdiocese of Washington and its related affiliates, saying they have "no right to challenge" the federal contraceptive mandate and arguing that the Catholic entities are not being forced to act contrary to their religious beliefs. The archdiocese in a Dec. 21 statement called the decision "astonishing" and "perplexing."
Within an hour of the judge's decision in its case, the Washington Archdiocese filed an emergency request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for an "injunction to maintain the status quo" while its appeal to the same court can be heard and decided.
The same District Court dismissed the lawsuit filed by Priests for Life, headed by Father Frank Pavone. The organization also planned to file an appeal.
Employers must comply with the mandate starting Jan. 1 or face thousands of dollars of daily fines.
The University of Notre Dame refiled its HHS lawsuit Dec. 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, arguing the mandate's purpose "is to discriminate against religious institutions and organizations that oppose abortion and contraception."
On Dec. 20 that court denied Notre Dame a preliminary injunction and criticized the university for waiting too long to refile.
Notre Dame had originally filed suit last year, but the District Court ruled it premature because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had yet not finalized the rules for implementing the contraceptive mandate, which is part of the Affordable Care Act. The university engaged in talks with the Obama administration over the past year to find an acceptable resolution, but the effort failed.
When the final rules were issued in June, many Catholic employers, like Notre Dame, said they still did not address their moral objections to the mandated coverage.
Elsewhere Dec. 20, Judge Robert Cleland of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan/Southern Division granted a preliminary injunction to Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders.
"The harm in delaying the implementation of a regulation that may later be deemed constitutional must yield to the risk presented here of substantially infringing the sincere exercise of religious beliefs" he said.
In October 2012 Cleland denied Legatus an injunction, saying the organization fell under the temporary "safe harbor" provision the Obama administration had in place to protect employers from immediate government action against them if they failed to comply with the mandate. He, too, noted the final rules were still to come, but told Legatus it could approach the court again if the government "acts in a way inimical" to the rights it sought to protect.
In his Dec. 20 ruling he said that "the court appears to have been unduly hopeful" about the government's action in implementing the mandate. "The balance of harms tips strongly in favor of Legatus. A preliminary injunction is warranted."
In a class-action lawsuit filed by close to 200 ministries associated with the Southern Baptists, Judge Timothy DeGiusti of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the mandate.
The ministries involved in the suit include a Georgia Baptist college and an organization called Reaching Souls International, which trains pastors and cares for orphans in Africa and a couple of other countries.
Employees are covered through the health benefits arms of the Southern Baptist Convention called GuideStone Financial Resources.
The Washington Archdiocese in its statement called the court ruling in its case "an astonishing decision that conflicts with the well-reasoned rulings of many other federal courts around the country."
"The District Court's ruling is perplexing. It creates an unequal patchwork of justice in our country, where fundamental liberties seem to depend on where one lives," the statement said.
"The ruling is contrary to the recent favorable decisions of federal courts in Pennsylvania and New York, upholding the challenge to the HHS mandate brought by dioceses and a host of Catholic schools, health care systems and charities," it continued. "These cases are virtually identical to ours, involving the same law, the same arguments, and the same essential facts and circumstances."
The statement referred to the decision in favor of the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses as well as another federal judge's Dec. 13 decision to grant Catholic organizations in the New York Archdiocese and the neighboring Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., a permanent injunction on having to comply with the federal contraceptive mandate in the health care law.
It noted the lower court's decision is also contrary to a recent D.C. circuit court's that blocked enforcement of the mandate against for-profit organizations with religious objections to it.
The Washington Archdiocese and its related affiliates "are extremely disappointed and troubled by the court's failure to uphold the church's freedom to maintain a health care plan consistent with its religious beliefs," it said.
"Since the regulations take effect on Jan. 1, 2014, and would force the archdiocese's affiliated ministries to violate their deeply held Catholic beliefs or face crippling fines and penalties for noncompliance, we will appeal this decision and seek immediate relief from the appellate court," it continued. "We believe the court erred in its reasoning and application of the law and look forward to advancing a successful appeal."
Currently, there are more than 70 lawsuits against the mandate filed by Catholic and other religious entities and some for-profit companies working their way through the courts.
The HHS mandate requires nearly all religious and other employers to provide free preventative health care coverage specifically for women.
That coverage includes services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings, but it also mandates free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs -- which are contrary to Catholic teaching. It includes a narrow exemption for some religious employers that fit certain criteria.
For religious employers who are not exempt, there is an accommodation for them to use a third party to pay for coverage they find objectionable, but Catholic entities that have brought the lawsuits say the accommodation still does not solve their problem over being involved in providing coverage they reject for moral reasons.
The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.
On Nov. 13, during an executive session at their annual fall general assembly in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops unanimously approved a special message as a body that reiterated their objections to the contraceptive mandate. The message also said the bishops remain "united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom."
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Nov. 26 to take up two cases that challenge the contraceptive mandate of the law for secular, for-profit businesses whose owners object to all or part of the mandate on moral grounds.