Facing a Jan. 1 deadline to meet new federal health insurance requirements, the Diocese of Pittsburgh Tuesday sued the Department of Health and Human Services and others, calling their past pledges to work with religious institutions "empty promises" and seeking a prompt exemption from a key part of Obamacare.
The final rules for the Affordable Care Act, released June 28, exempt the "worship wing" of the diocese from the mandate to provide coverage for what the lawsuit calls "abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization services, contraceptives and related counseling services."
The rule doesn't exempt educational and charitable wings of religious organizations, like Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said diocesan communications director Robert P. Lockwood.
"Religious liberty is the right to live according to the dictates of your conscience," he said. "Government can only have a really, really massive reason to attempt to interfere with that."
The mandate, he said, "is something that is geared specifically toward the government's wish to impose its values on the church and church-related institutions."
The diocese, like many other organizations, had previously sued to stop the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act's mandate that large employers provide coverage for what it calls "objectionable services."
U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry in November dismissed the diocese's claims, saying that the Affordable Care Act had not yet harmed the church and citing "clear and concrete steps" the government was taking to accommodate religious organizations.
Since then, according to the new lawsuit, some 400,000 comments have been submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services, many of them opposed to the mandate.
The final rules, though, didn't accommodate the concerns of religious institutions, according to the new lawsuit.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh, for instance, is self-insured through the Catholic Benefits Trust, which includes around 230 religious organizations, including parishes, schools and two other dioceses. The trust covers 2,200 Diocese of Pittsburgh-related employees plus about 1,300 dependents.
Because the diocese contributes to the trust, and the trust insures organizations that won't be exempt from the mandate, the diocese will, in effect, be forced to pay for "objectionable services," according to the lawsuit.
The complaint said that the diocese has until Dec. 31 to "choose between violating their faith, paying massive fines, or discontinuing their health plans for their employees."
The diocese called that a violation of the First Amendment. The complaint asked for a declaration that the mandate doesn't apply to the diocese, an injunction barring its enforcement, an order vacating the mandate and payment of attorney fees.
The Department of Health and Human Services press office referred comment to the Department of Justice, whose press office could not be reached.
Bishop David Zubik, Catholic Charities and the diocese are suing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and their departments.
Mr. Lockwood said the complaint is one of scores being filed on behalf of religious organizations by the Pittsburgh office of the law firm Jones Day.
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.
Along with other, similar cases, it could affect the health insurance coverage of a substantial number of people who work in church-related institutions like hospitals and schools, said Keith Fontenot, a visiting scholar at The Brookings Institution whose research is focused on the health care law.
"Depending on how the court rules, it can certainly affect the benefits [church-related employees] get," he said.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published October 8, 2013 7:57 AM