Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh sues federal government over health-care law

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh sued the federal government today arguing that new health care rules relating to contraception and morning-after drugs go against the church's constitutionally protected rights to religious freedom.

"The founders recognized, through their own experiences, that the mixture of government and religion is destructive to both institutions and divisive to the social fabric upon which the county depends," according to the the diocese's lawsuit. "The Constitution and federal law thus stand as bulwarks against oppressive government actions even if supported by a majority of citizens."

The lengthy federal rule says that government agencies "plan to initiate a rulemaking to require issuers to offer insurance without contraception coverage to such a [faith-based] employer ... and simultaneously offer contraceptive coverage directly to the employer's plan participants ... who desire it, with no cost-sharing."

Bishop David Zubik also sent a letter dated today addressed to "My Dear Sisters and Brothers of the Church of Pittsburgh."

In the letter, the bishop wrote, "we did not pick this fight or this timing. This is the federal government's choice to impose this on us now. Our goal in filing this lawsuit is to take this issue out of the political arena and turn it over to the courts where we are confident the Religious Freedom and the rights of the Church will be protected."

The lawsuit is one of 12 filed across the country today by universities, dioceses, charities and other organizations.

The lawsuits seek exemptions from the provisions of the law to which the religious organizations object and a permanent injunction barring the government from enforcing those sections of the law.

"Absent a declaration resolving this controversy and the validity of the U.S. Government Mandate and religious employer exemption," according to the Pittsburgh diocese's lawsuit, "Plaintiffs are uncertain as to their rights and duties in planning, negotiating, and/or implementing their group health insurance plans, their hiring and retention programs, and their social, educational, and charitable programs and ministries."

Geneva College in Beaver County sued the federal government in February making similar arguments.

The 164-year-old Beaver Falls college, founded by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, contends in its lawsuit that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 will "coerce thousands of religious institutions and individuals to engage in acts they consider sinful and immoral in violation of their most deeply held religious beliefs" by forcing them to cover "drugs used to abort a pregnancy."

There is religious, political and scientific disagreement over whether drugs taken after sex are "abortifacients" intended to prevent implantation or are comparable to normal contraceptives. Supporters of the mandate often point to an article in the Catholic Health Association journal, arguing that the drug called "Plan B" can't interfere with implantation.

Its author, Sandra Reznik, a reproductive biology specialist in the pharmacy school of St. John's University in New York, said the packaging for Plan B falsely claimed that it could prevent implantation. But she told the Post-Gazette that a newer drug, Ella, is primarily intended to prevent fertilization but, "as a secondary mechanism, it does make the uterine lining less receptive to a fertilized egg."

On Feb. 10, President Barack Obama announced a plan to broaden the narrow religious exemption, extending it beyond houses of worship to include religiously affiliated agencies that employ and serve those of other faiths. Under that revision they would not have to provide or refer for contraceptive coverage, but their insurance companies would contact employees directly to offer it at no extra charge.

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