BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CNS) — A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the federal contraceptive mandate filed by the Archdiocese of New York and two other Catholic entities can move forward.
The defendants — the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury — filed a request that the case be dismissed, claiming the mandate is not causing “imminent injury” and that the government plans changes to accommodate religious groups that object to the requirement on moral grounds.
The HHS mandate requires employers — including most religious employers — to provide free coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free in employee health insurance. A narrow exemption applies only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith.
In his Dec. 5 decision, Judge Brian M. Cogan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern district of New York, rejected the defendants’ claim, saying the mandate “has caused and will continue to cause plaintiffs harm so long as it remains in place.”
“The departments’ possible decision to amend their policies does not abrogate plaintiffs’ right to seek relief for their injuries,” he said.
“The First Amendment does not require citizens to accept assurances from the government that, if the government later determines it has made a misstep, it will take ameliorative action,” Cogan said. “There is no ‘Trust us changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution.”
“We are pleased that Judge Cogan has allowed the lawsuit to proceed,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the New York Archdiocese. “We look forward to proceeding to the merits of our claims.”
“It is noteworthy that, with this decision, the court has recognized that the Archdiocese of New York and other plaintiffs in this case are facing current and imminent harm from the government’s contraception coverage mandate,” he said in a Dec. 7 statement.
Besides the archdiocese, the plaintiffs are ArchCare, which is the archdiocesan health care ministry, and Catholic Health Services of Long Island.
“The court has no desire to interfere with or become entangled in the departments’ policy debates. The departments are, of course, free to amend the coverage mandate at any time and the court takes no position on whether any amendment is necessary or advisable,” Cogan said.
The final rule on the mandate takes effect in August 2013. The Obama administration has put in place a yearlong period, called “safe harbor,” that protects employers from immediate government action against them if they fail to comply with the mandate.
On Jan. 1, 2014, the U.S. government will begin imposing penalties on those who do not comply; the government also will fine individuals not covered by health insurance and employers that do not offer any coverage.
About 50 Catholic dioceses, universities and church entities throughout the U.S. have filed lawsuits against the mandate. Some business owners also have brought suits.
The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.