ACLU sides with government on contraception

Diocese filed lawsuit

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As the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh championed religious freedom and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pursued access to contraception, the ACLU weighed its role in the Affordable Care Act litigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania threw its legal weight behind the government Friday, filing a court brief opposing the bid by the diocese for an injunction stopping enforcement of the act's contraception coverage mandate.

"We of course have a longstanding commitment to religious liberty and free speech under the First Amendment, but we also defend women's rights and reproductive freedom," the ACLU's state legal director, Witold Walczak, said. "Historically, religions have attempted to justify discrimination in ways that have been rejected by the courts."

The ACLU's 24-page brief comes in a case in which the diocese, alongside the Diocese of Erie and affiliated organizations, have sued the federal government and challenged a provision of the act regarding coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

While houses of worship don't have to provide such services to employees, the rules are different for affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities. Those organizations have to either provide coverage for the services or fill out a form objecting to the coverage. If they object, their insurance administrators are required to provide the coverage at no cost to the employer and can seek reimbursement through federal insurance exchanges.

The diocese-related organizations have argued that if objecting to the coverage causes the administrator to provide the services, that is tantamount to "facilitating or enabling evil."

The ACLU countered in its brief that filling out a form isn't a heavy burden on the church-affiliated organizations.

Mr. Walczak said the ACLU has been filing similar briefs nationwide opposing efforts to gain exemptions from the act's contraception coverage rules.

He called the mandate for nearly universal coverage of contraception "one of the important advances of the Affordable Care Act." Employees of the diocese who want the same inexpensive contraception as others get under the act, he said, "are not going to be denied."

Attorney Paul Pohl, who is handling the case for the diocese, could not be reached for comment.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab has scheduled a Nov. 12 hearing on whether the organizations are entitled to an injunction exempting them from the Jan. 1 deadline to provide, or object to, the coverage.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com.


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