ACLU opposes Diocese of Pittsburgh's effort to halt contraception portion of health care law

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a court brief opposing a bid by the Diocese of Pittsburgh for an injunction stopping enforcement of the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

The 24-page brief calls religious freedom "one of our most treasured liberties," but balances it against "fighting discrimination and inequality, including discrimination based on gender."

“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.

The filing 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, the rules are different for affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Those affiliated 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.

"The delivery of payments for contraceptive services operates entirely outside of [diocesan] business operations," according to the ACLU brief.

Mr. Walczak said the ACLU has been filing similar briefs nationwide opposing efforts to gain exemptions from the Affordable Care 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. There’s a huge gender discrimination component in provision of healthcare” that the act addresses.

Reproduction-related healthcare for men has been affordable, while women's contraception has been expensive, he said.

“The Affordable Care Act evens the playing field in that sense," Mr. Walczak said. "Historically, religions have attempted to justify discrimination in ways that have been rejected by the courts."

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 immediately 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: or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord.

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