Hobby Lobby ruling's effect unclear on Pennsylvania cases

If a family-owned crafts business has religious rights, wouldn’‍t a faith-based organization have them in spades?

If so, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Monday might seem to bode well for religious organizations in Pennsylvania and beyond that are seeking their own exemptions from the contraception requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

But not so fast.

The cases involve different rules, different facts and different claims, and the signs are that the one Supreme Court justice whose opinion matters the most, Anthony Kennedy, might have bent as far as he’s going to on religious exemptions to Obamacare.

Justice Kennedy swung the high court toward a 5-4 ruling in favor of two businesses that Christian families control, the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby store chain and the Lancaster County-based Conestoga Wood Specialties. The court said they could claim religious freedom protections under federal statute. That shields them from providing coverage for certain contraceptives the employers contend could lead to early-pregnancy abortions.

In their own pending legal actions, the Roman Catholic dioceses in Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie and Philadelphia are asking for more than what was at stake with the companies.

They have filed cases seeking exemptions from contraception coverage on behalf of their various charitable, educational and other agencies, which straddle the legal border between strictly religious employers such as churches and secular nonprofits. So far, courts have granted injunctions on behalf of the Western Pennsylvania dioceses, while an appeals court has stayed a ruling against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Geneva College in Beaver Falls, in a pending lawsuit, also won an injunction.

These and other cases across the country are on appeal, with potential to reach the Supreme Court.

Unlike the Catholic dioceses, Geneva objects only to the narrower range of contraceptives purportedly linked to abortion. Like the dioceses, the Presbyterian-affiliated college also is objecting to the ethical terms of an opt-out provision the Obama administration offered.

Justice Kennedy gave that opt-out provision a boost even though he sided with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.

“Hobby Lobby will prove to be a significant setback for the Catholic bishops and other free exercise [of religion] maximalists, a good omen for contraception coverage advocates, and a fine result for those interested in a reasonable balance of the interests at hand,” predicted Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Connecticut.

Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said the Hobby Lobby case was “good news for anyone who cares about freedom of religion,” but a Diocese of Pittsburgh statement acknowledged that the case deals with different circumstances and isn’t necessarily a precedent.

The Affordable Care Act requires most employers to provide health insurance coverage to employees.

The Obama administration has included requirements that contraception and sterilization be covered as preventive care.

Religious organizations, such as churches, received broad exemptions, but scores of other employers — including faith-based, nonprofit schools and charities, as well as for-profit companies that religious opponents of abortion own — sued for exemptions.

The administration later offered faith-based nonprofit groups the option of signing a form objecting to the coverage. That didn’t mollify opponents such as the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which contends that signing the form “directly facilitates a moral evil” by triggering the process in which insurers pay for contraceptives anyway.

The Supreme Court decision turned on its interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which set a steep burden of proof for any government action conflicting with someone’‍s conscience.

The government has to have a compelling purpose, and one thing that none of the Supreme Court disputed was that providing contraceptive services was one such purpose.

“There are many medical conditions for which pregnancy is contraindicated,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

At issue was whether the government used the “least restrictive” means possible in carrying out that interest.

Justice Kennedy said the government could have given private companies the opt-out clause that faith-based nonprofits have. He described it as a “workable and already-implemented framework to provide coverage.”

“Predicting what the Court will do in a future case is a bit like reading tea leaves, but [Justice] Kennedy seems to be telegraphing where he will come out” in a case involving religious organizations, said Nick Cafardi, professor of law at Duquesne University.

Arthur Hellman, a law professor and constitutional scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that Justice Kennedy’‍s opinion “does point in that direction,” but it ”really doesn’t address a situation where a religious organization did assert that even certifying to the government [its objection to contraception coverage] would impinge on a plaintiff’‍s religious beliefs. That would be a different case. I don’‍t think this opinion decides it.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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