New York Catholic Groups Win Challenge to Obamacare Birth Control Mandate

By | December 16, 2013

A group of Catholic health and educational organizations doesn’t have to comply with federal Affordable Care Act requirements to ensure employees receive insurance coverage for contraceptives, a New York federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan in Brooklyn, New York, in a ruling today, barred the government from enforcing the mandate against Catholic Health Services of Long Island, Catholic Health Care System, Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island.

The ruling is the first final decision striking down the mandate for religious nonprofits that object to contraception and don’t meet criteria for an exemption from the law, said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for The Becket Fund, a Washington D.C.- based public-interest law firm that litigates and tracks religious freedom cases.

“We think it’s the right decision,” said Duncan, whose firm isn’t involved in the New York Catholic groups’ case. “It’s good early precedent and we hope that it will be influential to other courts.”

Met Terms

The organizations along with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Rockville Centre filed suit challenging the mandate on religious freedom grounds. The archdiocese and diocese meet the terms of an exemption for religious employers and aren’t subject to the mandate, Cogan said.

Under a revision to the requirements, the Catholic health and education groups were to notify third-party benefit administrators of their objections to contraception and allow them to provide coverage to employees by Jan. 1. The groups alleged that even facilitating their employees’ access to coverage violated their beliefs.

The groups “have demonstrated that the mandate, despite accommodation, compels them to perform acts that are contrary to their religion,” Cogan wrote in the ruling, in which he found the provision of the law violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “There can be no doubt that the coercive pressure here is substantial.”

Cases Filed

Employers that don’t comply with the mandate are subject to fines of $100 a day per affected beneficiary, Cogan said.

Catholic Health Services of Long Island, the largest of the groups at issue, oversees six hospitals, three nursing homes and a hospice service and has a health plan covering about 25,000 people.

Almost 90 cases have been filed by businesses and nonprofits over claims that the mandate is unconstitutional, according to the Becket Fund. The fund represented David Green- led craft retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. in its successful challenge of the law, which the government has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In four other cases dealing with religious nonprofits, groups have obtained temporary rulings shielding them from the mandate, according to the fund.

Earlier this month, the University of Notre Dame filed a complaint in Indiana federal court challenging the law.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on Cogan’s ruling. The government can appeal the decision.

Liberty ‘Fundamental’

Jennifer Lee, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the modified requirements imposed on the religious charities under the mandate were “not, in our view, a substantial burden on religion.”

“While religious liberty is fundamental, it does not give employers the right to impose their beliefs on employees by denying contraceptive coverage and discriminating against their women employees,” Lee said.

In a statement release today, Archdiocese of New York spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that the organization “welcomes and applauds” the decision.

“The court has correctly cut through the artificial construct which essentially made faith-based organizations other than churches and other houses of worship second class citizens with second class First Amendment protections,” he said.

The case is Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York v. Sebelius, 12-cv-2542, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

Editors: Charles Carter, Andrew Dunn

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