PITTSBURGH (AP) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that two western Pennsylvania Catholic groups don’t immediately have to comply with mandates in the federal health care overhaul law, and has granted them a temporary delay while the issue is appealed to higher courts.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab wrote that forcing schools and charities related to the Pittsburgh and Erie Catholic dioceses to comply with the Affordable Care Act could result in decreased donations, loss of employees and fines that could force the closure of some church programs. The dioceses object to the law’s requirement that contraception, including sterilization, be offered in employee health care plans.
Schwab said the government won’t be harmed by a delay in the case but that the dioceses would be harmed and would face a “substantial burden on their free exercise of religion” if they were forced to comply by Jan 1. Schwab noted that the contraceptive mandate would apply to some church organizations but not others, and that would cause a division for the church.
Both sides expect the case to be appealed to higher courts. There are numerous similar challenges in other states, and many legal experts expect the issue to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Department of Justice claimed that a plan to have third parties provide and pay for services such as birth control and abortion wouldn’t infringe on religious freedom rights.
But Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik testified before Schwab last week that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he signed a form that allowed the disputed services to be provided to employees, even by a third party. Zubik said the church is being asked to violate an important belief and a matter of conscience.