.- Federal judges in Pittsburgh and Nashville dismissed Catholic lawsuits challenging the federal contraception mandate, but acknowledged that the suits can be re-filed when the regulation is more imminent.
Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh said that he was "disappointed" that the lawsuit cannot currently proceed, but he was also "very encouraged that it was 'dismissed without prejudice.'"
"That means that we have every right to file again in the future," he explained.
In May, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, joined by Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and the Catholic Cemeteries Association of Diocese of Pittsburgh, filed a lawsuit to challenge the contraception mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The mandate requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs, even if they have religious objections to doing so.
On Nov. 27, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry dismissed the case on standing and ripeness, arguing that the plaintiffs had not yet experienced any real harm from the mandate.
In his opinion for the case, McVerry pointed to the one-year "safe harbor" that the government has allowed for objecting religious employers, delaying the implementation of the mandate while the administration develops an "accommodation" for religious freedom.
While the process to create this proposal for a new rule was announced last spring, the details of the proposed regulation have not been formally announced, and critics argue that the initial suggestions put forward by the administration still require objecting employers to facilitate the controversial coverage.
However, McVerry said that “any decision the Court would make today would not have an immediate impact on Plaintiffs’ day-to-day operations as the existing regulations are currently under review and are expected to be modified.”
Because he did not rule on the merits of the suit, the plaintiffs will be able to bring their case before the court again once the harm is deemed more imminent.
"We will now await in good faith the accommodation to religious freedom that the federal government has claimed it will offer," Bishop Zubik said. "However, we must all be aware that no modification to the original HHS mandate in regard to religious freedom has yet been made."
The bishop pointed out that the matter "remains fluid" because other courts have arrived at different conclusions in challenges to the mandate.
"I do want to make clear, however, that we cannot and will not negotiate away our constitutional rights to religious freedom and religious expression," he said.
More than three dozen lawsuits challenging the mandate are working their way through the courts. Several for-profit businesses that did not qualify for the safe harbor period have been granted temporary injunctions blocking the mandate from taking effect.
In a separate ruling filed on Nov. 27, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Diocese of Nashville, along with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and several Catholic schools and assisted living homes throughout the diocese.
U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell similarly ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing and the lawsuit was not "ripe for judicial review."
Campbell also cited the “safe harbor” period and promised adjustments from the Obama administration in his opinion. He said that any harm caused by the mandate was "merely conjectural and speculative" at this point.
Right now, the regulation "is not sufficiently direct, immediate, and traceable to the Defendants to warrant judicial intervention," he said.
As various lawsuits progress in the courts, the U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders continue to speak out on the importance of religious freedom.
In an online video six months ago, Bishop Zubik reflected on the severity of the matter, noting that under the mandate, Church organizations “are required to let the government determine which of our beliefs we can follow.”
“We help people because we are Catholic, not because they are Catholic," he said, explaining that religious schools, hospitals and charities "cannot accept that the state has the right to force us to choose between our sacred beliefs or shutting our doors.”
“Religious freedom means that each of us has the right to pursue truth, embrace it and to shape our lives by it without government coercion," Bishop Zubik said. "This lawsuit is meant to protect that freedom, already guaranteed to us by the constitution, not just for Catholics, but for every American.”