Church and state: The courts must balance health care rights

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The Roman Catholic Church is justly renowned for its good works. The Affordable Care Act also aspires to good works, extending health coverage to 30 million uninsured people, thereby saving lives and keeping families intact.

The church and the Obama administration should be natural allies in work that as a practical matter aligns with the Gospels. Instead, they are in court, with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Diocese of Erie and affiliated groups suing the government on the constitutional grounds of eroding their freedom of religion.

This is a damaging claim, because invoking a hallowed principle arms those who would end the health care act with scant concern for Americans who would suffer the consequences. Besides, the church’s objection is at best strained.

The issue is insurance coverage for birth control. The law exempts churches and other houses of worship from rules that require coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

But separate nonprofit religious entities, like Catholic Charities, would have to either provide such coverage or formally certify that they object. If the employers do neither, they are subject to fines. If the employers object, they must provide lists of their employees to their insurance administrators, who would then give cards to these workers entitling them to the so-called “preventive services.”

The first round in the court fight has gone to the plaintiffs. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab granted an injunction for the religious groups. But this will be settled in higher courts, and they may not be so sympathetic.

The church and church-affiliated employers have their rights, but the question is whether they can impose their beliefs on those who work for them in the wide world. Many of their employees are not adherents of the faith, and they have their rights, too — to the affordable health insurance coverage being extended to other Americans.

We hope, and expect, a higher court to balance these dueling rights differently.

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