(Updates with appeal rulings in fifth paragraph.)
Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The Catholic Church isn’t harmed by the U.S. Affordable Care Act’s requirement for providing employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives, a judge ruled, throwing out most of a lawsuit challenging the provision.
U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson in Washington yesterday rejected arguments by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington and the archdiocese’s schools that the requirement to provide cost-free coverage for contraceptive services violates religious freedom. The claims are “practically identical” to those the archdiocese made in a previous case that Jackson threw out in January, she said in her ruling.
The plaintiffs’ beliefs “remain the same, but in the interim, the law has changed,” Jackson wrote. She said changes to the law alleviated the “burden that the mandate imposes on religious organizations that are not entirely exempt.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 26 agreed to hear two cases brought by business owners who object on religious grounds to the birth-control mandate. The lawsuits by the for-profit employers, the craft store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., will be the court’s first look at President Barack Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishment since a majority of the justices upheld the core of the law in 2012.
Previously, appeals courts in Chicago, Denver and Washington ruled the mandate may violate religious freedom, while appellate panels in Philadelphia and Cincinnati had sided with the government.
The high court on Dec. 2 declined to hear an appeal by Liberty University, a Virginia school founded by the late evangelical preacher and activist Jerry Falwell, which lost a lower-court case arguing the law’s employer mandate exceeded Congress’s power over interstate commerce.
Lawsuits by nonprofit religious groups challenging the contraceptive-coverage mandate are less advanced in the courts because the Obama administration delayed that requirement for a year as it sought an accommodation with them.
Jackson’s ruling follows and conflicts with a Dec. 16 ruling by U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan in Brooklyn, New York, barring the government from enforcing the mandate against a group of New York-based Catholic health and educational organizations. This month, the University of Notre Dame filed a complaint in federal court in South Bend, Indiana challenging the law.
David Timothy Raimer, a lawyer representing the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, didn’t immediately return a call yesterday after regular business hours seeking comment on Jackson’s ruling.
The archbishop and the schools argued in their second complaint, filed Sept. 20, that providing contraception coverage is contrary to their religious beliefs and violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and their constitutionally protected free-speech rights.
The defendants in the case, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies, had created a process for accommodating religious organizations, Jackson wrote in her ruling.
Except for one plaintiff -- Thomas Aquinas College, which is self-insured -- the law no longer requires the entities to “provide, pay for, or facilitate access to contraception,” Jackson wrote.
Under a revision to coverage requirements, the Catholic health and education groups are to notify third-party benefit administrators of their objections to the contraception mandate and allow them to provide coverage to employees by Jan. 1. Jackson, disagreeing with the plaintiffs, said that notification requirement wasn’t a substantial burden on the groups’ religious rights.
The case is Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Sebelius, 13-cv-01441, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The New York case is Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York v. Sebelius, 12-cv-2542, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
--With assistance from Christie Smythe in federal court in Brooklyn, New York and Andrew Harris in federal court in Chicago. Editors: Michael Hytha, Fred Strasser