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November 28, 2012 Print

Court Dismisses Pittsburgh Diocese Challenge to HHS Mandate

by Bethany Monk

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a Pennsylvania diocese’s lawsuit challenging a government mandate requiring it to offer contraceptives and potential abortion-inducing drugs to its employees under its insurance plans.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh filed the suit in August saying the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate violates its religious freedom protected under the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said in his opinion Tuesday that the plaintiffs have not yet suffered harm from the mandate, since most of the mandate’s regulations do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014.

“While I am disappointed in the ruling that our lawsuit cannot proceed at this time based on the very narrow argument that we allegedly have no real damages yet from the Health and Human Services mandate, I am very encouraged that it was ‘dismissed without prejudice,’” Bishop David Zubik, of the Pittsburgh diocese said in a statement Tuesday. “That means that we have every right to file again in the future.”

The Obama administration gave secular businesses until Aug. 1 of this year to comply with the mandate; some faith-based organizations, including the Pittsburgh diocese, have a so-called “safe harbor,” and must comply by August 2013.

There are currently more than 110 plaintiffs in 40 separate cases challenging the HHS mandate.

So far, seven courts have dismissed challenges to the HHS mandate. Three courts, however, have ruled in favor of businesses seeking temporary relief from the mandate as their respective cases move forward.

In July, a federal court in Colorado granted the first preliminary injunction halting implementation of the mandate for Hercules Industries, a Catholic-owned business in Denver.  In October, a federal court in Michigan granted temporary relief from the mandate for Weingartz Supply Company, also owned by Catholics. Earlier this month, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction for Tyndale House Publishers, a Christian publisher of books, Bibles and digital media.

“Other courts have reached differing conclusions in the challenges to the HHS mandate, so this remains fluid,” Zubik said. “I do want to make clear, however, that we cannot and will not negotiate away our constitutional rights to religious freedom and religious expression.”

Also on Tuesday, a Tennessee district court dismissed the Catholic Diocese of Nashville’s lawsuit challenging the HHS mandate for similar reasons: The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled that the diocese has not yet suffered any injuries related the mandate.

Read the district court’s decision in Zubik v. Sebelius.

Read Bishop David Zubik’s letter regarding the lawsuit.

Read the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s HHS Mandate Information Central.