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Federal appeals court reverses birth control ruling

| Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, 3:39 p.m.

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday the religious rights of the Catholic Church would not be violated if church officials are required to sign a paper certifying they morally object to providing health insurance coverage for contraceptives and medications that could terminate pregnancy.

The ruling lifts the injunctions the District Court handed down.

The Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses and a private Beaver Falls college sought to avoid signing the document, which would exempt them from providing contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act but allow either the insurer itself or a third-party administrator of an insurance plan to offer contraceptive coverage directly to their employees.

Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, said in her opinion that once an organization claims it will not pay for contraceptive coverage, it faces no additional burden on its religious freedom if the claim triggers third-party or insurer offerings of birth control.

Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Diocese said in a statement that the ruling was disappointing.

“Such a ruling should cause deep concern for anyone who cares about any First Amendment rights, especially the right to teach and practice a religious faith. This decision says that the church is no longer free to practice what we preach,” Zubik said.

The diocese is considering whether to petition the Supreme Court or seek another appeal hearing before a nine-judge panel of the Third Circuit. Geneva College is as well.

“All Americans should oppose unjust laws that force people — under threat of punishment — to give up their fundamental freedoms and act contrary to their beliefs,” said attorney Gregory S. Baylor in a statement for the college. “The administration has no business punishing people of faith for making decisions consistent with that faith.”

Geneva College is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Religious organizations across the nation said the Affordable Care Act exemption for churches did not extend to the charities, schools or other services provided by churches. Because they did not want to provide contraception or possible abortifacient medications to their employees either, they sought another vehicle to exempt those agencies.

Federal authorities made an “accommodation” — a document for church officials to sign certifying that the church objects to the coverage.

The government would fine religious organizations that refused either to provide the services or sign the certification. During court hearings, diocese officials said those fines would drive their non-profits out of business.

The church, which funds its own health insurance plan and contracts administration to insurers such as Highmark and UPMC, refuses to sign the accommodation, which would set in motion a plan by which an insurer, or in the case of the Pittsburgh diocese, a third-party administrator, would be able to offer what could amount to a rider to coverage.

The college objects only to providing abortion-related services; the dioceses object to providing any of the contraceptive services required by the Affordable Care Act.

The lower court ruling said requiring the certification would violate the religious beliefs of the church groups.

“Because we disagree with the District Courts and conclude that the accommodation places no substantial burden on the appellees, we will reverse,” Rendell wrote in her opinion.

The reversal does not apply to the Greensburg diocese, said diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt. Their hearing on the same matter has not been scheduled.

Brian Bowling and Megha Satyanarayan are Trib Total Media staff writers .

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