Greensburg Catholic Diocese challenges Affordable Care Act mandate in hearing

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Greensburg Catholic Diocese officials said at a hearing Friday that they would be committing a “grave” sin if they went along with the Affordable Care Act’s rules regarding contraception coverage.

A Department of Justice attorney countered that the federal government has no way to enforce the act’s rules in regard to the diocese’s insurance, so there’s no harm in playing along.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab gave no indication as to how — or when — he will decide between those positions. In a prior case, however, he provided a permanent injunction against enforcement of the mandate to the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie. The federal government has appealed.

The Greensburg diocese, its Catholic Charities arm and the St. John the Evangelist Regional Catholic Schools seek a similar injunction, in one of scores of cases related to the act’s plank requiring coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception.

That plank doesn’t apply to churches. It allows religious nonprofit organizations to avoid directly providing their employees with coverage for the reproductive services, but only by filling out a self-certification form that prompts their insurance administrators to independently pay for those treatments.

Greensburg Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt testified that he won‘‍t sign the forms because “it involves material cooperation with conduct that is intrinsically evil."

Then, he said, the schools and charities would face "crippling fines."

Monsignor Raymond Riffle, managing director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg, said the fine of $100 per beneficiary per day would amount to nearly $1.4 million a year. That’s nearly all of his charity’s $1.6 million annual budget. “We would have to close,” he said.

Attorney Bradley P. Humphreys, representing the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, asked Bishop Brandt if he was sure that the government had the power to force his insurance administrator, Highmark, to provide the reproductive services coverage. A government filing in the case argued that no federal agency has the power to enforce the mandate on insurance administrators serving churches, so the religious organizations aren't going to be harmed.

"Whether or not the [insurance administrator] would provide the services is speculation on your part," Mr. Humphreys said to Bishop Brandt.

Monsignor Riffle said that signing the self-certification form without knowing whether it would result in the provision of contraception would be like firing a gun in the woods without being sure if there was a deer there.

Last month U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote in a 5-4 ruling in favor of two businesses owned by Christian families, Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby and Lancaster County-based Conestoga Wood Specialties. The majority decided that the businesses could not be required to provide the reproductive services.

Justice Kennedy then described the self-certification process for religious nonprofits as a "workable and already-implemented framework."

Mr. Humphreys suggested that means that the high court views the process as appropriate.

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published July 18, 2014 12:00 AM

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