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Federal judge dismisses Pittsburgh diocese lawsuit seeking exemption to health care law

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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 6:48 p.m.

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese filed against the Obama administration for requiring it to offer birth control services to employees as part of the federal health care mandate.

The diocese said the administration was violating its religious freedom by ordering the diocese to facilitate and, in some cases, pay for abortion-inducing drugs, birth control and other services to which its objects.

U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said in his 28-page opinion that the diocese has not been harmed by the health insurance reform law because most of the regulations do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014. The judge also said the “defendants have actively begun the process of amending the regulations to address the specific religious objections which plaintiffs raise in this litigation.”

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, declined comment because the church's attorneys had not reviewed the opinion.

In January, Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik told the Tribune-Review that he believes the mandate is a threat to religious liberty.

Even though the Diocese of Greensburg did not join the Pittsburgh diocese in the lawsuits, it supports the effort.

“The ruling does not end the legal efforts to challenge this mandate,” said Jerry Zufelt, spokesman for the Greensburg diocese. “We continue to support the Pittsburgh diocese and other groups opposing this. As it stands now, we believe this mandate is an infringement on the beliefs of the Catholic Church.”

Local affiliates of Catholic Charities and The Catholic Cemeteries Association joined the diocese in filing the lawsuit in May. Named in the lawsuit were Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their respective federal agencies.

The local church-affiliated groups said that while some of their health plans are “grandfathered” from having to pay directly for drugs such as the so-called “morning-after pill” and other contraceptives, the administration's exemption that would have their insurers offer such services directly to employees and their dependents still violates the organization's religious beliefs.

“Even if plaintiffs do not end up paying for the prohibited drugs and services, they will still be forced to violate their religious beliefs by facilitating the provision of those drugs and services,” the lawsuit said.

The diocese additionally said in the lawsuit that it needed time to plan for employee health care benefits, that it was unable to enter into collective bargaining negotiations in January, set tuition rates in February and make decisions about teacher retention in April because of uncertainty regarding whether the changes would be amended.

McVerry rejected that argument, saying the diocese must suffer “an actual or imminent injury, not a conjectural or hypothetical injury.”

In dismissing the case, McVerry said a future lawsuit is possible “if plaintiffs' concerns are not resolved to their satisfaction ... at a time when harm is more imminent and more certain.”

Horace Cooper, a legal expert and fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, a conservative think tank, said the judge's decision “is only a temporary success for the administration.”

“This is not a win on the merit of the law. These challenges are ultimately going to get heard on their merit and on their merit they're ultimately going to prevail.

“They're going to rule this mandate overreaches and runs afoul of the First Amendment,” Cooper said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or Staff writer Tony LaRussa contributed to this report.

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