Federal Case Brought by Local Diocese Raises Constitutional Issues Close to Home

Photo courtesy of www.donaldwuerl.com
Photo courtesy of www.donaldwuerl.com

by: Thomas Cocchi, Staff Writer

One becomes accustomed to hearing about issues of Constitutional law as being solved in the Supreme Court, one of many Greco-Roman inspired buildings eight hours away in Washington D.C., But who would have thought that Pittsburgh would see its own battle over Constitutional rights right here at home? Perhaps one might have supposed this fact after reading the headline to this article, but the point that it would be a surprising happenstance without that knowledge remains valid. The diocesan congregations of Pittsburgh and Erie have teamed up to raise a freedom of religious exercise challenge to the requirements laid on them by the Affordable Care Act, and leading the charge is Pittsburgh’s own Bishop David Zubik.

In November of 2013, the Erie and Pittsburgh dioceses requested a preliminary injunction from the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. In their motion, they pointed out that the dioceses themselves, as religious organizations, would be exempt from the requirements to provide contraceptives to employees as instituted by the Office of Health and Human Services (HHS). However, the dioceses argued that their charitable corporations (Catholic Charities, the Catholic Benefits Trust, etc.) would not be exempt from the mandate, and the enforced provision of contraceptives to their employees would constitute a major infringement on their Constitutional rights to freedom of religious exercise.

In his analysis, Judge Arthur Schwab examined the elements of the test for a preliminary injunction and found that most of the factors weighed in favor of the dioceses. In particular, Judge Schwab’s concern turned to the effects that the imposition of fines would have after the plaintiffs inevitably refused to follow the requirements of the HHS mandate. Judge Schwab’s apprehension that the imposition of fines would affect the ability of the charitable organizations ran by the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie to provide their services was considerable, and he spent a significant amount of time in his order talking about it

Aside from the concern Judge Schwab had for what the consequences of failing to provide the injunction would cause, his analysis of the elements of an injunction opined that the dioceses had met the burden such a motion places on the moving party. Judge Schwab found that the dioceses had shown that: (1) the mandate placed a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion, (2) the court could reasonably find that the government was not protecting compelling state interests by use of the mandate, (3) the court could find that the “accommodation” offered by the HHS was not the least restrictive means of achieving their goals, (4) the plaintiffs would likely be irreparably harmed by the enforcement of the mandate, (5) the government would not be irreparably harmed by not enforcing the mandate until after the case could be decided, and (6) the public interest would likely be served by preserving the status quo through granting the injunction. On November 21, 2013, Judge Schwab granted the preliminary injunction requested by the two dioceses. In balancing the elements of the test, the court had found that all of the elements favored a ruling in favor of the dioceses.

In anticipation of the New Year and the broader enforcement of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, Judge Schwab extended the injunction he had granted, making it permanent as of December 20, 2013 and granting the relief that the two local dioceses sought.

The attorneys for the government who handled the case said that they would not challenge the injunction in the district court, but they expressed plans to appeal the court’s ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Bishop Zubik remains committed to ensuring that his diocese does not have to be complicit in the provision of contraceptives to its employees, saying that “this is an absolutely critical decision. If it has to go to the Supreme Court, I’m moving with it all the way.”

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