WASHINGTON - Pro-life groups that have battled with the federal government since the first rules were issued on contraceptive coverage in 2012 derided the government's latest rules allowing religious institutions -- and potentially some for-profit companies -- to opt out of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

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WASHINGTON - After judges in two separate rulings Nov. 27 dismissed lawsuits filed by Catholic organizations and dioceses in Pennsylvania and Tennessee challenging the federal contraceptive mandate, Catholic leaders in both states expressed disappointment but also some hope the rulings left the door open to refiling their claims.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A U.S. federal district court judge in Ann Arbor granted a Michigan business, Weingartz Supply Co., a temporary injunction from the Health and Human Services' contraceptive mandate.

The judge also dismissed a lawsuit filed by a non-profit Catholic group, Legatus, because he said the religious organization qualified for the Obama administration's temporary "safe harbour" from having to comply with the mandate.

But he also stipulated the federal government must provide monthly updates on the status of the process for amending final regulations covered by the safe harbour period.

Erin Mersino, lead counsel for Thomas More Law Centre, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, which represented the plaintiffs, told Catholic News Service Nov. 2 that she was "happy with the court decision" and described both decisions as "a straight win for us."

Daniel Weingartz, president of the supply company, which sells outdoor power equipment and employs approximately 170 people, is a Catholic who says the mandate conflicted with his faith.

In the ruling, Judge Robert Cleland of the Eastern District of Michigan, said the "loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury." He did not rule on the mandate's constitutionality, but his decision keeps the company from having to comply with the mandate until the constitutional claims are resolved.

"The harm in delaying the implementation of a statute that may later be deemed constitutional must yield to the risk presented here of substantially infringing the sincere exercise of religious beliefs," he said in his 29-page opinion.
Mersino called the ruling "not only a victory for our clients, but for religious freedom."

The HHS mandate requires all employers, including most religious employers, to cover the costs of contraceptives, including some that can cause abortions, and sterilizations in employee health plans. It does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds. A narrow exemption applies only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith.

In July, a Colorado judge similarly granted a temporary injunction from the HHS contraceptive mandate to Hercules Industries, a Catholic-owned company that provides heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment.

The Michigan judge denied without prejudice the motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders. Cleland said Legatus fell under the "safe harbour" provision and as such does not have a claim the mandate violates the organization's rights.

In August, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a "temporary enforcement safe harbour," a year-long period that protects employers from immediate government action against them if they fail to comply with the mandate. The final rule on the mandate takes effect in August 2013.

In a similar court case, a federal judge in Oklahoma City began hearing arguments Nov. 1 for a lawsuit filed by the Christian business Hobby Lobby against the federal government's HHS mandate. Hobby Lobby, based in Oklahoma City, has more than 500 retail stores in 41 states. Its practices include remaining closed on Sundays and hiring company chaplains to minister to employees.

"We have always operated our company in a manner consistent with biblical principles, including integrity and service to others," said David Green, an evangelical Christian who is founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby. "We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate."

Hobby Lobby is the largest company to file suit against the HHS mandate and the only one not owned by a Catholic.

About 50 Catholic dioceses, universities and entities throughout the United States have filed lawsuits against the mandate.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Department of Health and Human Services' mandate that would force many religious institutions to provide free contraceptives against their consciences is illegal, former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak said Sept. 4 during a meeting of pro-life Democrats.

During debate over the legislation that would become the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Stupak negotiated an executive order with the Obama administration that guaranteed the act would not violate the Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funding for any abortion or abortion-related care. The HHS mandate violates that executive order, as well as the Hyde Amendment itself, Stupak believes.

"Specifically, as written, it violates the law and violates the executive order," said Stupak, who decided not to seek re-election after passage of the health reform law.

Last year, as her agency set forth the nuts and bolts of the Affordable Care Act, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared that nearly all employers must include free contraception and sterilization services in their health insurance policies.

HHS drafted a narrow exemption for religious employers who object to providing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as mandated, but to be exempted they must serve and hire people primarily of their own faith. Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable organizations would not qualify under that standard; they would either have to provide such coverage in violation of Catholic teaching, pay steep annual fines in order to keep providing health insurance to their employees and students, or stop providing health insurance entirely.

Stupak said he was "bewildered" and "perplexed" by the HHS mandate when it was announced last summer. Religious organizations led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bristled, and under the vocal leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, conference president, they fought back. They denounced the move at first, asking the Obama administration to back off the HHS mandate. Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina was one of the first to file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate. More than 20 similar lawsuits are now in the works.

In response to the criticism, President Barack Obama announced a compromise, giving Catholic institutions a year's reprieve from having to comply with the HHS mandate and allowing them to pass the coverage costs onto their insurance carriers rather than pay for it directly.

But the bishops and other religious institutions argued that the mandate itself was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment protection for religious freedom.

The Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, but the court did not review the HHS mandate or other details of the act. One justice even hinted in her written opinion that the HHS mandate, if challenged in federal court, is at risk of being ruled unconstitutional.

Stupak said he agrees with the public outcry over the HHS mandate and its assault on religious organizations' freedom to not offer health insurance coverage for services they consider immoral. He smiled when he was asked about the court battles now getting under way, and he said the Catholic bishops are absolutely right to challenge the HHS mandate. He also noted, without giving specifics, that there have been some moves by the Obama administration to modify the mandate. Dolan and the USCCB staff have asked to meet with administration officials to work out a fix, but those efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

Stupak hinted it is in the Obama administration's best interest to bend on this controversial issue, because the HHS mandate could be overturned in court.

"We don't want this stuck in the courts, being challenged for years," he said.

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WASHINGTON - Forty-three Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed suit in federal court May 21 to stop three government agencies from implementing a mandate that would require them to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their health plans.

“Through this lawsuit, plaintiffs do not seek to impose their religious beliefs on others,” said one of the suits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana by the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, diocesan Catholic Charities, St. Anne Home and Retirement Community, Franciscan Alliance, University of St. Francis and Our Sunday Visitor.

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OTTAWA - A fiery debate over contraception and religious freedom has pitted the Catholic bishops in the United States against President Barack Obama’s health care policy, but a Canadian Catholic health expert said such a debate is unlikely in Canada.

Obama’s Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate would force all Catholic institutions, including universities, hospitals and charities, to offer insurance to employees that offers contraception, which is against Church teaching.

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WASHINGTON - In an move that appears unlikely to end the controversy over a federal mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception and sterilization free of charge, President Barack Obama outlined a plan that would allow religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so.

The president announced the policy in a brief statement Feb. 10 but took no questions.

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WASHINGTON - Although Catholic leaders vowed to fight on, the Obama administration has turned down repeated requests from Catholic bishops, hospitals, schools and charitable organizations to revise its religious exemption to the requirement that all health plans cover contraceptives and sterilization free of charge.

Instead, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced Jan. 20 that nonprofit groups that do not provide contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs will get an additional year "to adapt to this new rule."

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