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Friday, October 21, 2016

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Even as the Supreme Court considers one challenge to the Obama administration’s rule that female employees be offered health plans that include a full range of contraceptives, lawyers for the several prominent Catholic groups are seeking to set up a potential Round 2 in the fight.

In arguments Thursday before a U.S. appeals court, lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington clashed with administration attorneys over whether Catholic schools, colleges and charities should have a complete religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate included in President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

For now, the legal fight between religious freedom and women’s health is being played out in a friendly forum for the administration. The three-judge panel had two new Obama appointees: Judges Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins.

But theirs will not be the final decision. That is likely to come from Supreme Court, probably next year.

The justices heard arguments in March over whether private companies may refuse to pay for contraceptives if their owners cite a religious objection. A decision in that case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, is due by late June.

But separately, dozens of religiously affiliated nonprofit groups, including schools and colleges, have sued and raised a somewhat different challenge.

Rules issued under the Affordable Care Act in effect create three groups of companies and institutions. Most employers, including those such as Hobby Lobby whose owners have strong religious beliefs, are fully covered by the mandate to provide a full range of contraceptive devices. At the other end of the spectrum, churches are entirely exempt.

A third category, which includes religious nonprofit groups, like Catholic schools and colleges, falls in between. Under a compromise offered by the administration last year, those employers need not pay for contraceptives, but are required to sign a form to certify that they have a religious objection. Insurers, not the employer, would pay for the contraceptive coverage in those cases.

For now, that requirement has been put on hold for most Catholic institutions. On New Year’s Eve, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an order temporarily shielding the Little Sisters of the Poor from complying with the regulation, and other justices handed down similar orders.

The Catholic groups say that even signing a form goes too far. Doing so would “make them morally complicit” in violating Catholic doctrine, attorney Noel Francisco told the judges, because their insurers would then step in.

The judges said they had no doubt the Catholic leaders had a sincere religious objection to providing contraceptives. However, they did not seem persuaded that the bishops’ claim met a key test in federal law — whether religious freedom was being placed under a “substantial burden” by the administration’s plan.

“Even writing a letter to the secretary to opt out? You would object to that as well?” asked Judge Judith W. Rogers, a Clinton appointee.

“Yes, if their employees get the contraceptive coverage,” answered Robert Muise, a Michigan attorney who represented Priests for Life, one of the several groups challenging the requirement.

The two sides sounded far apart, and the outcome could potentially affect tens of thousands of employees in schools, colleges and hospitals.

But at other moments, the dispute seemed to turn on a minor matter of paperwork. The attorney for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said he would have “no problem” with a system that allowed female employees, rather than their employers, to sign a form telling the government and an insurer that they wanted contraceptive coverage. This could achieve the same end, but the church officials would have no part in arranging the coverage.

Photo: OZinOH via Flickr 

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  • JSquercia

    As a Catholic I am disgusted with the claims by Catholic Institutions such as Hospitals and Colleges that THEIR religious freedom is being violated by their having to provide Contraception coverage for their employees .In reality it is the religious freedom of those employees that is being violated .

  • 4sanity4all

    The churches and religious objectors do not understand how separation of Church and State works. By law, many employers must now provide insurance coverage. By law, all policies must now provide basic health coverage, which includes reproductive services. By law, the church may not make laws for the state. By law, the state may not make laws for the church. This case does NOT mean that the state is making laws for the church. If the Church provides you with insurance that could possibly cover contraception, but your religious faith prohibits using it, then you will not ask for it, or get it. No one is making you get it. The fact that they have to pay for your insurance does not mean that they are providing you with birth control. They are only providing you with insurance, and since this is a free country, you get to make your own decision. It is a subtle point, and I am quite upset that the Bishops of the Catholic Church are pretending not to see it. The Church leaders have high levels of education, and I am very disappointed that they are acting like they have never been in a theology or ethics class. This new activism on the part of Church leaders is a blatant attempt to influence State decisions. Church leaders used to know better than to do this. Shame on them.
    They seem to be all about the civil law which would control women, but they are oddly silent on issues of poverty, distribution of wealth, capital punishment, civil rights, and other issues, all of which are way more important to a just society than birth control and abortion. They are hypocrites, and they disgust me. I hope that the Supreme Court will get back to separating Church and State and stop responding to pressure from conservative religious zealots. These conservative religious folks need to stop worshiping at the altar of intolerance, and show some compassion and tolerance for their fellow man, and opinions other than their own. This country is diverse, and should not be ruled by the intolerant views of conservative zealots.

  • Sand_Cat

    Yeah, they weren’t worrying about being “morally complicit” when Pius XII kissed Hitler and Mussolini’s asses and supported laws designed to make it impossible for Jews to make a living in Italy and the rest of Europe, or when he looked the other way while church functionaries assisted some of the worst Nazi criminals in escaping justice, or when he gave an especially anti-semitic Easter message at a time when he knew Jews were being rounded up for murder, or even just shot on site. But when it comes to even slightly relaxing medieval anti-human ravings of “reformed” perverts and libertines determined to punish everyone experiencing even the mildest pleasure while expressing love and tenderness for a spouse and expecting them to wade through a voluminous rulebook governing every aspect of physical love compiled by these celibate deviants in meticulous detail, why, them’s fightin’ words.