Judge Refuses to Rethink Obamacare Relief
ATLANTA (CN) - A federal judge who exempted Catholic organizations in Georgia from the contraception mandate in the new health care law refused to reconsider that decision.
Though the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act exempts Catholic dioceses and archdioceses from the mandate, affiliated organizations such as schools, charities and hospitals do not qualify.
Catholic Education of North Georgia Inc. (CENGI) and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta Inc. were two such groups that sought relief. CENGI, which operates several Catholic schools in Atlanta, and Catholic Charities, which provides counseling, education and legal services to people of all faiths, did not qualify as "religious employers" exempt from compliance.
Those organizations were required to complete a form to avoid paying for or arranging for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in their employees' health insurance plan. They then had to give the form to their insurance plan's third-party administrator, which in turn was required to provide the contraceptive coverage and be reimbursed under federal health exchanges. The final rules also barred the organizations from communicating their religious beliefs about contraception to the third-party administrators.
U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr. ruled earlier this year that the government's attempt to pressure the organizations into providing contraceptive coverage despite their religious objections violates freedom of speech and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The government then asked the court to reconsider its RFRA analysis, arguing that the health plans operated by the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Savannah Diocese, co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were not necessarily "church plans" under federal employment law.
Duffey said last week that his previous decision did not hinge on whether the health plans qualified as "church plans" or not.
The plaintiffs had shown that "the self-certification form was an integral part of the government's contraceptive coverage scheme that created rights and responsibilities, and it is a government imposed device that pressures the plaintiffs into facilitating the contraceptive coverage to which they have sincerely held religious objections," Duffey wrote.
They can pursue their claims regardless of whether their employees and their beneficiaries are covered by a health plan defined as a "church plan" within the meaning of ERISA, the May 30 order states.
What's more, there is no dispute that the employees of Catholic Charities and CENGI qualify as employees of the Atlanta Archdiocese, and are thus covered by a church plan, according to the ruling.
Requiring the organizations to find a third-party administrator that provides contraceptive coverage if their existing one refuses to do so is grounds for an injunction, the opinion also states.
Duffey did, however, agree to dismiss the church plaintiffs' remaining claims, which had been left out of the previous ruling. They include free exercise, compelled speech and internal church governance claims, and the diocesan plaintiffs' RFRA claim.