Two Western Pennsylvania dioceses have joined the wave of challenges to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh have each filed separate suits in federal court asking for an injunction of that portion of the law and an order vacating the mandate, claiming it violates their First Amendment rights and their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“Plaintiffs are now at the end of a long-running regulatory saga, dating back to 2011, when the government began its historically unprecedented violation of the core constitutional right to religious freedom,” each similarly worded complaint says.
“Since that time, the government has bobbed and weaved around various legal challenges by, (i) saying whatever it needed to get by the moment, (ii) promising courts around the country on record that it would resolve the concerns that plaintiffs have raised over the years, and (iii) inviting public comments and representing that it would take these comments seriously,” the complaints say, referring to the government’s process for carving out an exception to the contraceptive mandate for religious institutions.
“But, despite all that it said, and all that has happened, the government has now finalized a rule that respects nothing, resolves nothing, and attempts to confine what constitutes one’s practice of faith to the four corners, bricks and mortar of a house of worship,” the complaints say.
Both suits were assigned to U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab of the Western District of Pennsylvania and both have been shuttled promptly into the alternative dispute resolution program.
Schwab set a status conference date for October 24 and ordered that, “prior to the status conference, lead trial counsel for the parties are directed to meet and confer, face-to-face, to hold extensive and in-depth discussions on the issues relevant to the orderly preparation and trial of these matters.”
Both dioceses are represented by the same team of lawyers from the Pittsburgh office of Jones Day, none of whom could be reached for comment.
This is the second challenge to the Affordable Care Act that the Pittsburgh diocese has launched. The first was dismissed last November by U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry. He found that the case, alleging that the ACA infringed on the diocese’s freedom of religion, wasn’t ripe and that the diocese lacked standing.
The Pittsburgh diocese covers six counties while the Erie diocese — the largest by geographic area in Pennsylvania — covers 13. Both serve hundreds of thousands of people through their schools, charities and churches, according to the complaints.
The employees who work at the non-religious institutions run by the dioceses are entitled to coverage of certain contraceptives under the health care mandate — contraceptives to which the church objects.
The act requires coverage of women’s preventive care including Plan B and ella, but there is a narrow exception for employers that have the primary purpose of spreading their religion, employ people who share their religious beliefs, serve people who share their religious beliefs, and are nonprofit entities.
That exception typically only encompasses actual church employees.
Dozens of similar suits have been filed around the country, as have been cases filed by religious owners of secular businesses, like the one decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit this summer in which it differed from the Tenth Circuit on the novel question of whether the Supreme Court’s extension of First Amendment protections to corporations includes religious freedom.
The Third Circuit ruled that Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet company owned by a Mennonite family, is a corporation, separate and distinct from the people who own it, which means that it can’t engage in the patently human exercise of religion. The appeals court upheld the district court’s denial of an injunction from the enforcement of the law that requires Conestoga to provide insurance for its 950 workers.
The three-judge panel hearing the case split 2-1 and Conestoga filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court last month.
The decision from the Tenth Circuit, captioned Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius, was opposite from the Third Circuit’s holding and was decided en banc. A writ of certiorari has been filed in that case, too.