Apr 14, 2014 - The Associated PressFederal government lawyers are opposing a request from Catholic organizations in Wyoming for a court order to block the birth-control coverage requirement in the federal health care overhaul.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne and other organizations filed a lawsuit in January objecting to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that they provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortion services for their non-ministerial workers.
The lawsuit is one of dozens of similar actions around the country that religious groups have leveled against the federal Affordable Care Act.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper has set a court hearing for early next month on the Wyoming groups' request for an injunction to bar the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and others from enforcing the act's requirements while their lawsuit is pending.
The Catholic Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., in December succeeded in getting a similar injunction from a federal appeals court in Cincinnati that stayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act for it on similar grounds.
Lawyers for the HHS and other federal defendants this week filed a response urging Skavdahl to deny the groups' request for an injunction.
In their response, the government lawyers state the Diocese of Cheyenne is exempt from the contraception coverage requirement.
They pointed to the pending injunction from the Nashville case.
They government lawyers also stated the Wyoming Catholic College, another plaintiff, already is covered by an injunction that the U.S. Supreme Court issued in another pending case.
The college is insured through the same church plan that's involved there.
Finally, the government lawyers told Skavdahl that the remaining Wyoming plaintiffs, including Catholic schools and charities, could sidestep the insurance requirement by certifying they meet certain religious criteria. Making that certification would relieve the groups of responsibility for providing their employees with contraceptive coverage, the government stated.
Under the Affordable Care Act, once a religious group certifies that it's exempt from offering contraceptive coverage, a third-party insurer, paid for by the government, will pick up the costs of the contraceptive coverage.
The Rev. Carl Gallinger, vicar general of the Cheyenne diocese, said Friday that church officials still believe they have a strong difference with the federal government concerning the mandate. "And we look forward to the opportunity to present those to the court at the hearing next month," he said.
An attempt to reach John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, on Friday was not immediately successful.
Many religious groups nationwide have said the requirement to certify that they qualify for the religious exemption that would trigger the third-party insurance coverage for their employees is a violation of their religious freedom.
The Wyoming groups stated that the government has put the Wyoming plaintiffs to a stark choice: "violate their religious beliefs or suffer crippling consequences. These penalties and other negative consequences clearly impose the type of pressure that qualifies as a substantial burden."
Attempts to reach lawyers for the Catholic groups were unsuccessful on Friday.
In response to the Wyoming groups' request for an injunction from Skavdahl, the federal government's lawyers stated that requiring the religious groups to opt out of the Affordable Care Act wouldn't violate the groups' religious freedoms, "because the regulations don't require plaintiffs to change their behavior in any significant way."
"This extraordinary contention suggests that plaintiffs not only seek to avoid paying for, administering, or otherwise providing contraceptive coverage itself," the government lawyers wrote, "but also seek to prevent the women they employ from obtaining such coverage, even through other parties."
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