PITTSBURGH – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Tuesday again sued the federal government seeking to overturn a looming requirement that employers offer contraceptive coverage in employee health plans.
A judge in November dismissed a previous lawsuit, saying the diocese has not been harmed by the legislation and that the government had promised to take steps to address religious objections.
But the new federal lawsuit claims such promises have proven to be “empty words” – and said the final regulations that take effect Jan. 1 are worse than the proposed regulations that prompted last year’s lawsuit.
“Despite all that it said and all that has happened, the government has now finalized a rule that respects nothing, resolves nothing and attempts to confine what constitutes one’s practice of faith to the four corners, bricks and mortar of a house of worship,” the diocese’s 60-page lawsuit said.
The Department of Justice, which will defend the new suit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit largely reiterates the claims made last year by the diocese, which serves about 700,000 Catholics in six southwestern counties.
Bishop David Zubik’s spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment, but the new lawsuit reiterates Zubik’s comments at a news conference last year. At the time, the bishop said the mandate would exempt only church entities that primarily employ and serve Catholics and appears to be based on an interpretation that applies “religious liberty” to worship only.
The lawsuit also is filed on behalf of the diocese’s Catholic Charities arm, which serves many non-Catholics, too.
The new lawsuit said the government has made three changes to the mandate since the lawsuit was filed last year. None of the changes lessens the burden of the diocese, and one actually increases the number of religious organizations likely to be adversely affected by the mandates, the lawsuit contends.
The lawsuit contends that’s happening largely because “religious organizations that have a broader mission are still not, in the government’s view, `religious employers,”’ the new lawsuit said.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which is being sued in hopes a judge will free the diocese from the mandates – or declare them illegal – has repeatedly declined comment, instead referring to a past statement that explains its position. It reads in part: “The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is not violated by a law that is not specifically targeted at religiously motivated conduct and that applies equally to conduct without regard to whether it is religiously motivated.”
The diocese argues the government’s stance isn’t neutral, nor is HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has criticized aspects of Catholic teachings against birth control and abortion.