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Judge plans speedy ruling on Catholic groups' lawsuit over health care mandate

In this photo from May 2012, Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh announces a lawsuit in opposition to the federal mandate regarding birth control. File photo

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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 1:27 p.m.
 

Anticipating an appeal, a federal judge said Thursday he hopes to rule by December on whether to enjoin the government from enforcing a health care mandate on Roman Catholic entities in Pittsburgh and Erie.

The Affordable Care Act mandate takes effect Jan. 1, so the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would need time to decide what to do with any appeal, said U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab.

He held a hearing on Thursday to go over the background of the regulation that led the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses, and their charitable organizations to file the lawsuit.

Brad Humphreys, the Justice Department trial lawyer representing the government, said the administration's position is that there's no need to delay implementation of the regulation while religious groups challenge the mandate in at least a dozen cases nationwide.

“The government's position is that the regulations are valid,” he said.

Paul Pohl, the lawyer representing both dioceses, said one of their main objections is the government's arbitrary distinction between the Pittsburgh Diocese, for example, and the Catholic Charities of the Pittsburgh Diocese.

The diocese would be exempt from a mandate that it provide employees with coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, sterilizations and related counseling services, but the charitable organization would not.

The regulation would allow Catholic Charities to certify that it objects to providing such services so that it wouldn't have to provide direct coverage, but a third-party administrator such as Highmark or UPMC Health Plan could.

The organization still would be “facilitating evil,” he said. While the regulation says that the third-party administrator would provide coverage without cost to Catholic Charities, that's a sham, he added.

“There's nothing free,” Pohl said. “Particularly in the field of health care.”

Schwab scheduled a hearing for Nov. 12 on the dioceses' motions for preliminary injunctions. Meanwhile, he ordered lawyers for both sides to produce agreements concerning the facts underlying the case.

Since one of the main criteria for granting an injunction is to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, Schwab asked them to provide him a description of what would happen to organizations such as Catholic Charities if they refuse to provide coverage and refuse to sign the certification document that would have a third party provide the coverage.

“What are the consequences to somebody who has a sincere belief and won't do either?” the judge asked.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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