Oklahoma City, Okla., Jun 5, 2014 / 15:59 pm
A federal court has ruled that the Catholic Benefits Association and its hundreds of employer members are exempt from a federal mandate requiring coverage of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs.
"We are grateful for the ruling, but continue to pray that our leaders recognize that Catholics, whether bishops or businessmen, cannot in good conscience provide insurance that covers drugs and procedures that undermine the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life," Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, the benefit association's vice-president, said June 5.
"Religious freedom entails more than the right to worship and any contrary legislation must be opposed," he added.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the association's president, also welcomed the decision.
"We formed the Catholic Benefits Association to support Catholic employers in providing quality, cost-competitive, morally compliant health care benefits for their employees," he said June 5. "Yesterday's decision makes this a reality."
On June 4, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ruled that the more than 450 employer members of the benefits association are exempt from the mandate. The ruling enjoined the U.S. government and its agents from attempting to enforce the mandate against the association's members.
The benefits association's general counsel, Martin Nussbaum, said the ruling is "especially gratifying" because the lawsuit is the only challenge to the HHS mandate that includes Catholic-owned for-profit businesses and other non-exempt organizations like colleges, Catholic Charities and healthcare institutions in addition to houses of worship.
The benefits association's employers include 23 Catholic archdioceses and dioceses and almost 2,000 parishes in addition to non-profits and Catholic-owned for-profit businesses. Its membership is also open to Catholic religious congregations, Catholic medical facilities, and Catholic universities.
The Catholic Benefits Association formed a subsidy, the Catholic Insurance Company, to allow Catholic employers to exercise their faith in what health care coverage they provide to their employees. The association also arranges health provider networks to help Catholic employers provide comprehensive health care that is consistent with Catholic ethics.
The Department of Health and Human Services mandate requires employers to provide insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause early abortions.
Widespread complaint led to a series of changes in the mandate into its current finalized form. A religious exemption to the mandate does exist, but it applies primarily to houses of worship and their affiliated organizations.
Religious employers that do not qualify for the exemption are instead offered an "accommodation" by the government, under which employees automatically receive contraceptive coverage from the objecting groups' health insurance issuers.
These provisions have continued to draw criticism and legal complaints from hundreds of individuals and organizations who argue that their right to exercise their religious beliefs freely is being violated by the requirements.
In addition, neither the exemption nor the accommodation applies to individuals with religious or moral objections who own for-profit businesses.
Wednesday's federal ruling on the class action lawsuit recognized that the benefits association could represent all its individual members without their explicit participation because its members are "so uniform in their beliefs."
The named participants in the lawsuit include the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, Inc., Archbishop Lori and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Archbishop Coakley said that the U.S. government has already "effectively granted exemptions from the mandate to various employers whose plans cover more than 130 million employees."
"We're simply seeking the same exemption for Catholic employers who have religious objections to the unjust requirements of the mandate."
According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the mandate has prompted some 100 lawsuits from more than 300 plaintiffs, including non-profits, for-profits, Catholic and non-Catholic organizations, and individual states. So far, court decisions have predominantly favored the objecting groups.
A significant Supreme Court case involving the legal challenge filed by craft store giant Hobby Lobby is expected to be decided later this month.