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Diocese wins battle in lawsuit

Birth control edict on hold

A federal judge has ruled that, for the time being, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend does not have to provide employees with medical insurance that pays for birth control.

The decision is a short-term victory for the diocese, which has sued the federal government over the contraception coverage mandate contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That provision of the health care law takes effect Wednesday.

A preliminary injunction favoring the diocese was granted Friday by Judge Jon DeGuilio in the U.S. District Court for Northern Indiana in South Bend.

“Long game to play. It’s a good first step. We’ll wait to see what the final ruling is,” Sean McBride, diocese communications director, said Monday in a telephone interview.

“But we are pleased to get the injunctive relief, you bet,” he said.

The injunction will remain in place until the court rules on the diocese’s 2012 religious-freedom lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies that administer the health care law. DeGuilio did note that any changes in circumstances – including new developments in the law – could affect the injunction or its terms.

An HHS spokeswoman referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not return a phone call.

DeGuilio wrote that the diocese faces “irreparable harm” without the injunction and “that the balance of harms favor protecting the religious-liberty rights of the plaintiffs.”

The judge also wrote that the diocese lawsuit “stands a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits.”

The injunction applies to contraceptive methods, abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization procedures and related patient education and counseling.

DeGuilio was appointed to the bench in 2010 by President Barack Obama. The Affordable Care Act is commonly called Obamacare because of the president’s insistence on its passage and implementation.

The diocese’s suit alleges that the HHS birth-control regulation violates its constitutional and statutory rights. The 39-page injunction states that the Roman Catholic Church believes “that contraception is immoral” and that providing a health insurance plan that covers contraceptives “is inconsistent with plaintiffs’ core moral and religious beliefs.”

The plaintiffs include the diocese and six affiliates: Catholic Charities of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Saint Anne Home and Retirement Community in Fort Wayne, Franciscan Alliance Inc., Specialized Physicians of Illinois LLC, the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and the Huntington publisher Our Sunday Visitor Inc.

Together, they employ nearly 17,000 full-time employees who may be eligible for employer-provided medical insurance. More than 14,800 work for the Franciscan Alliance, a health care system with 11 facilities in Indiana and two in Illinois.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers will be fined $100 a day for each employee if they do not provide birth-control coverage. Last summer, the Obama administration revised the mandate so it requires insurers or third-party administrators for religious groups, and not the groups themselves, to pay for employee contraceptives.

Even this “accommodation,” the diocese insists, violates religious-freedom rights. The diocese, which employs 1,400 full-time employees, says it is exempt from the mandate but that its affiliates must adhere to the revised rule.

McBride said diocese officials had been hopeful that the injunction would be granted.

“We have seen similar litigation go in different directions,” he said about other court cases challenging the contraception regulation.

A month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear two cases involving private companies, including the arts-and-crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby, that are challenging the contraception mandate on religious grounds.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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