PITTSBURGH (AP) — The federal government is trying to remove First Amendment religious protections from church-related schools and charities “for the first time in history” by mandating contraception and abortion coverage for such employees, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh argued in a new court filing.
The diocesan filing late Tuesday comes as a federal judge has scheduled a hearing and arguments next week before deciding whether to grant an injunction that would keep the church and its related entities, including Catholic Charities, from having to comply with regulations taking effect Jan. 1 under the Affordable Care Act.
The church filing answered one by the Justice Department. The government argued if Catholic Charities objects to offering coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, its insurance administrator — not the church or the charity — must then provide the coverage at no charge and seek reimbursement from the federal government.
But the diocese said that amounts to writing “contraceptive coverage into the Plaintiffs’ plans in invisible ink.”
The government hasn’t disputed that anyone working for the church is exempt but the church argues those who work for its related entities should be treated the same way.
“In addition … for the first time in history, many religious organizations such as Catholic Charities or high schools controlled by Catholic Dioceses will be viewed as outside the definition of ‘religious,’ will be unprotected by the First Amendment, and will be subject to various types of Government regulation,” the diocese contends.
Next week’s court arguments also concern a similar lawsuit filed by the Erie diocese, in northwestern Pennsylvania, but clearly could have broader implications as similar lawsuits have been filed in dozens of jurisdictions nationwide. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union has also filed a brief siding with the government, arguing the health care needs and rights of those employed by church-related schools and charities trumps any freedom of religious expression arguments being made by the diocese.
The government has argued that the church-related entities have to do very little to be “exempted” from the mandates though the diocese contends their schools and charities aren’t really being exempted if their employees wind up with abortion and contraceptive health benefits — no matter who pays for it.
The diocese, instead, wants the court to focus on whether the church or its entities are being forced to violate their beliefs, not whether what they’re being required to do is unduly inconvenient.
“For example, an anesthesiologist would theoretically perform the same procedure for a knee surgery and an abortion,” the diocese argued. “The Government could not, however, compel a devout Roman Catholic anesthesiologist to perform that identical act to facilitate an abortion contrary to her beliefs, under threat of fines.”
The diocese also argued that refusing to offer abortion and contraceptive coverage doesn’t violate their workers’ rights.
“Employees may use their paycheck to purchase contraceptives, cocaine, cotton candy or anything in between,” the diocese argued. But forcing the diocese to provide employees with coverage for abortion or contraception amounts to giving employees “a ‘coupon’ that can only be redeemed for contraceptives — as often as the employee chooses, and as long as the employment relationship lasts.”
That makes the diocese “complicit” in abortion and birth control, violating its First Amendment rights, the church argued.