In the News 2017

Dioceses, Geneva College see win in new Trump rules

Attorneys representing Western Pennsylvania religious groups are all but declaring victory in their longstanding lawsuits over an Obamacare contraception mandate after the Trump administration announced Friday that it was reversing the mandate.

There are details to work out in court, but the U.S. government has come around to the point of view of those representing the Catholic bishops of Pittsburgh and Erie as well as Geneva College, a Reformed Presbyterian school based in Beaver Falls.

“If this had been put in  … years ago, we wouldn’t have had all these lawsuits,” said Paul Pohl, who represented the dioceses in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik was the lead plaintiff in that case, filing on behalf of the local Catholic Charities.

The new rules “give individuals the freedom of conscience that the Constitution gave them and still values other interests in providing women’s health services,” said Mr. Pohl.

But Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of Catholics for Choice, an independent national group that opposes church teachings on birth control, said the new regulations “are a cheaply calculated move by President Trump to pander to his ultra-right base.”

She added: “This purely political decision is not about protecting religious freedom” and would hurt millions of women, particularly poorer ones.

On Friday, the administration announced it was rescinding mandates that required health plans for faith-based charities and schools to provide free contraceptives to women on their employee and student health plans.

President Donald Trump had campaigned on calls to repeal Obamacare entirely and in particular to champion religious groups that claimed their constitutional freedoms were being violated by such mandates. So the repeal of this mandate was expected from the moment the election results came in last November.

But the new rules expand the conscience protections to those who claim a moral objection without citing a specific religious reason.

That includes any non-profit agency, religious or not. And it covers “closely held” corporations that aren’t publicly traded and that have moral objections to it.

That echoes a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the national Hobby Lobby chain and the Lancaster County-based Conestoga Wood Specialties won exemptions because of their owners’ religious objections.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the administration of President Barack Obama had allowed outright exemptions for strictly religious groups, such as churches. But religious schools and charities had to submit a formal objection based on moral principles.

At that point, the insurers would provide contraception separately.

Bishop Zubik and others argued that even by submitting an objection, employers would be morally compromised by helping facilitate the ultimate provision of the contraceptives.

The Supreme Court punted the case back to lower courts for settlement talks.

Settlement talks are still being finalized.

Bishop Zubik said in a statement he hopes the new regulations will lead to a resolution of the case soon: “We are thankful that it appears to be a significant step on the road to ensuring that the government cannot force religious institutions to violate the precepts that they teach.”

Attorney Gregory Baylor of the organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Geneva College, noted that Friday’s rules only have an interim status. He hopes to obtain a permanent court injunction that would protect Geneva even if a future administration were to reverse course.

“It’s a remarkably positive development,” he said. “We certainly expect they (administration attorneys) will follow through on the clear implications of the rule and resolve the cases in a way that provides lasting protection.”

The administration said its rules would not prevent women from getting contraception on their own, nor would it block other programs providing birth control to low-income women.

But critics said the changes put an unnecessary burden on women.

“Today’s decision by the Trump administration to roll back women’s health care is yet another assault on the Affordable Care Act and women,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, a national group that is independent from the Catholic hierarchy.

“No one — whether a business owner or the president of the United States — should use religious liberty or moral conviction as a guise to take away health care from women,” she said in a statement.

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Catholics for Choice