Judge delays Michigan Catholic Conference’s HHS lawsuit

By the Catholic News Service

Public comment period on Obama administration’s proposed rule open until April 8

DETROIT — A federal judge in Ohio ruled March 22 that a lawsuit by the Michigan Catholic Conference and the Franciscan University of Steubenville against the federal government’s rule mandating coverage of birth control, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations in nearly all health insurance plans could not proceed, saying it was premature.

Judge Algenon L. Marbley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled that the case was not ready to be reviewed because he said the rule had not yet gone into effect for the MCC and Franciscan University, who were co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The judge also cited the fact that the Obama administration had revised the planned rule, which is scheduled to take effect Aug. 1. A public comment period is open until April 8 on the revised rule.

Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul A. Long said the judge’s decision did not mean the issue was dead, just delayed.

“The court did not reach the merits of MCC’s legal challenge; instead, it found only that MCC’s challenge was premature because HHS has said it plans to revise the mandate by August 2013,” Long said in a statement. “The ruling does not foreclose MCC bringing similar claims once the alleged administrative change to the mandate takes place. MCC continues to evaluate all of its options in light of the court’s decision.”

Franciscan Fr. Terence Henry, Franciscan University president, said in a statement that school officials were awaiting “details of those revisions with caution,” and noted the school also “vows to continue to fight for the freedom to practice its faith without government interference.”

Dozens of Catholic and non-Catholic groups across the country have filed legal challenges to the rule on the grounds that it violates their religious liberty by forcing them to participate in something they view as immoral. Many of the lawsuits have been dismissed as premature, but some judges have issued temporary injunctions against the mandate for private businesses and nonprofits.

On March 14, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff of the Eastern District of Michigan granted a motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the HHS mandate in a suit filed by Tom Monaghan and his company, Domino’s Farms Corp., a property management company.

According to the Thomas More Law Center, Zatkoff previously issued a temporary restraining order; his new ruling means the HHS mandate cannot be enforced against Monaghan and his company while his lawsuit works its way through the courts.

The general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the current proposed revisions are “an unprecedented … violation of religious liberty by the federal government” and must be changed.

The statement was in comments filed March 20 regarding the mandate, made on the USCCB’s behalf by Anthony R. Picarello, USCCB associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael F. Moses, associate general counsel, note a number of continuing problems with the regulations, including that many nonprofit and for-profit organizations would still be required to provide the services regardless of moral objection, and even many religious employers would be forced to facilitate, if not pay for, the services.

Elsewhere around the country, a federal judge’s decision to strike down portions of a Missouri law protecting conscience rights of those who object to coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients in their health plans drew a strong response from that state’s Catholic conference, which said the ruling attacks the conscience rights and religious liberty of all Missouri citizens.

Judge Audrey Fleissig of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis issued her order March 14.

The Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the state’s bishops, expressed dismay over her decision. Tyler McClay, the conference’s general counsel, said no one should be forced to pay for contraceptives, abortion drugs or sterilization procedures in their health plans.

In Missouri Fleissig’s order effectively amended a state law, McClay said, “thereby requiring churches and houses of worship to provide the offending coverage to their employees under Missouri law. She did this despite the fact that the Obama administration recently amended the rules to clearly allow churches and their affiliates to be exempt from the mandate.”

HHS removed three conditions that defined religious employers — as groups whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values, who primarily employ persons of the same faith and who serve those of the same faith. The fourth criterion remains: what is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

No exemption, however, will be given to “for-profit, secular employers” whose owners have moral objections to providing the coverage.

A number of federal judges, including even the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, have granted injunctive relief to several Missouri for-profit employers who have sued, claiming that the HHS contraceptive mandate violates their religious liberty, McClay said. Her order specifically mentions these cases, but claims they are irrelevant to her decision.

According to a March 19 news release, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the state’s bishop’s, filed a brief with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, on behalf of Minnesota entrepreneur Tom Janas and Stuart Lind, owner of Annex Medical Inc., a Minnesota-based medical supply company. Lind and Janas sued over the HHS mandate.

On March 25, Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama dismissed Eternal Word Television Network’s HHS lawsuit because she said the suit was not ripe for judicial review and she did not want to issue a final ruling because proposed rules governing the mandate have not be finalized. “At that point, if EWTN still has objections, it may then file suit,” she said.

“In every lawsuit filed against the mandate, the government has made promise after promise to amend its unjust rules,” EWTN President Michael P. Warsaw said. “As a result, nearly everyone, including the courts, is left waiting to see what the government might or might not do to address the serious issues of conscience that have been raised since the first set of rules were published over a year ago.”

The Michigan Catholic contributed to this story.