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Judge says no to Catholic ACA exemption

May 14, 2014 - From staff and wire reports

The order applies to Wyoming Catholic College in Lander.

A federal judge has ruled that Roman Catholic organizations in Wyoming are not entitled to a court order blocking provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act that require hundreds of non-ministerial employees to get health insurance coverage for contraception and abortion services.

The ruling applies to Lander-based Wyoming Catholic College, among other entities.

Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper denied a request from the Diocese of Cheyenne, which covers all of Wyoming, Catholic schools and other groups for an injunction against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The plaintiffs had asked Skavdahl to block access to contraception and abortion services insurance coverage while their lawsuit challenging the health law runs its course. The challenge is one of several playing out in federal courts nationwide.

Skavdahl heard arguments last week from lawyers for the Wyoming Catholic groups who said it would violate their clients' religious freedom to fill out a form that would trigger third party insurance coverage for contraception and abortion services.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic groups don't have to provide contraception and abortion services for their more than 200 non-ministerial employees. However, the law would force the groups to sign a certification that would allow those same employees access to health insurance through another provider with those same options or face fines.

The Diocese of Cheyenne issued a statement saying Skavdahl's decision conflicts with the rulings of other federal courts.

"Since the challenged regulations take effect on July 1, 2014, and would force the plaintiffs to violate their deeply held Catholic beliefs or face crippling fines and penalties for noncompliance, we will appeal this decision and seek relief from the appellate court," it said.

Attorney David Raimer of Washington, D.C., presented most of the Catholic groups' arguments to Skavdahl. "Plaintiffs sincerely believe that they cannot fill out that self-certification form without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs," he said at last week's hearing.

Julie Saltman, a lawyer representing the Department of Health and Human Services and other defendants, argued last week that accepting the Catholic groups' theory of what constitutes a substantial burden would substantially expand the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that limits government intrusion on religious practices.

Saltman wouldn't comment on Skavdahl's order.

Skavdahl ruled that it's the Affordable Care Act itself that would authorize or obligate the third party insurance administrator to provide abortion and contraception coverage, not the religious groups' certification that they object to it.

"The ACA doesn't not force plaintiffs to offer a health insurance plan with objectionable contraceptive coverage; it forces the third party administrator -- a non-religious third party -- to arrange and offer such coverage," Skavdahl wrote.

Skavdahl stated that the requirement that religious groups fill out the certification doesn't place a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion.

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