A federal court has ruled against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and several associated nonprofits seeking exemption from portions of the federal health care law they argue would force them to sanction contraception coverage for their more than 4,000 employees.
In an opinion released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter found that an Obama administration compromise allowing the groups to opt-out of paying for birth control - as long as they sign over that responsibility to a third-party health care plan - does not place a significant burden on their rights to religious expression.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Friday the church would appeal the judge's decision to deny the groups a preliminary injunction.
"It's a reasonable request, and for believing Catholics, a fundamentally important one," he said. "We'll continue to press it in every way and at every level of judicial appeal available to us."
Buckwalter's decision Thursday landed in an already fractured legal landscape on what has become one of the most hotly contested issues in the rollout of President Obama's signature health care plan.
Nearly 90 cases have been filed across the country challenging contraception mandate as an infringement on religious liberties, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and courts have varied widely in their opinions. Of those cases, 42 involve religious nonprofits, while 48 have been brought by religiously oriented for-profit companies.
In Pennsylvania, three Pittsburgh-based federal judges have granted exemptions for nonprofits tied to Geneva College, a Presbyterian school in Beaver Falls, as well as the Diocese of Erie and Pittsburgh.
Government lawyers have appealed all three, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has yet to rule on the issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court is also expected to weigh in on the for-profit side of the debate Monday with the release of an opinion involving the Oklahoma City-based craft megastore Hobby Lobby and Lancaster County-based cabinetmaker Conestoga Wood Specialties.
The Affordable Care Act requires employers with more than 50 workers to cover contraception without a co-pay.
Churches are already exempt from the mandate. But their nonprofit wings must submit a form to their third-party health plans declaring themselves a religious organization and requesting they not be charged for contraception use by their covered employees. Plan administrators, then, would cover the cost of birth control themselves but could apply for federal government reimbursement.
As in many of the suits filed so far, the Philadelphia Archdiocese argued that compromise still "creates a vital link in a chain toward the provision of contraceptive service" and makes it impossible to "adhere to their sincerely held Catholic beliefs on the dignity and sanctity of human life."
However, Buckwalter, an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, sided with the six other federal courts that have so far rejected such arguments.
The Archdiocese's current health plan expires Monday, church lawyers said. If the Third Circuit does not grant the church's appeal by then, its nonprofits will either have to participate in the contraception compromise or face fines of up to $160,000 a day.
"We will be forced to choose between violating our deeply held religious beliefs," Chaput said in a statement, "or grave financial distress that threatens our ability to continue to perform the good works and ministerial outreach to people in need throughout the Philadelphia region."