Diocese details fight against birth control mandate

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Attorneys for Catholic organizations laid out their opposition to providing insurance coverage for contraception services Wednesday in a legal brief in the run-up to a courthouse showdown Tuesday.

Workers for religious organizations can use their paychecks for “contraceptives, cocaine, cotton candy, or anything in between,” wrote attorney Paul M. Pohl, who is leading the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s legal effort against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. “But when an employer complies with the [act], it ensures that its employees are furnished with a health plan ‘coupon’ that can only be redeemed for contraceptives,” which church-related groups view as morally objectionable.

Last month the diocese, Bishop David Zubik and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh sued federal officials and agencies, as did the Diocese of Erie and affiliated groups.

On Tuesday, Bishop Zubik, Catholic Charities executive director Susan Rauscher and Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico are expected to testify at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab. The judge plans to decide by early December whether to grant an injunction delaying the enforcement against the plaintiffs of the act’s contraception rules.

The act exempts churches from its requirement that large employers provide coverage for reproductive services, but has different rules for nonprofit organizations affiliated with religions. Those organizations can file statements of objection to the coverage. Then their insurance administrators must provide the coverage, at no charge to the employer, and can seek reimbursement of costs through federal exchanges.

That, according to the brief, “compels [diocese-related organizations] to take affirmative actions that trigger and facilitate the provision of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, contraception, and related education and counseling … contrary to their seriously held beliefs.”

“Effectively, the [act] writes contraceptive coverage into Plaintiffs’ plans in invisible ink,” wrote Mr. Pohl.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which is defending the act, said she could not comment on litigation.

Attorneys for the department have argued that the contraception coverage mandate does not impose any burden on the church-affiliated organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union last week filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the government, saying that employees’ right to coverage trumps any minimal burden the act places on church-related organizations.

Mr. Pohl wrote that the act imposes a burden because failure to comply would result in “crippling fines.” Those fines have been described at an October hearing as $2,000 per employee per year.

He added that the government has exempted “millions of employees” from the contraceptive coverage rules, undermining any argument that the required coverage is essential.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com.

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