US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The (first) verdict is in: Judge throws out contraception mandate lawsuit

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

A federal judge in Nebraska is the first to rule on one of the lawsuits filed by Catholic institutions around the country against the federal government's requirement that all employers provide contraception as part of their health care coverage. And not surprisingly, he has ruled that the plaintiffs don't have the standing to sue and that the lawsuit is premature.

U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom dismissed the suit filed by attorneys general from seven states, including Nebraska, which included such plaintiffs as Catholic Social Services, a Catholic high school, a nun, and a missionary. The plaintiffs' argument is that the mandatory coverage of contraception violates their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

The judge, however, finds some of the same problems with that argument that we've written about before. The lawsuit is premature, he argues, because the law will not actually take effect for Catholic employers until August 1, 2013. The judge also notes the administration's proposed compromise that would pass the burden of paying for contraception from the employer to the health insurance company. (And although it wasn't brought up in this case, the administration has also proposed a compromise that would prevent self-insured Catholic employers from paying for contraception, so the argument that the compromise doesn't apply to them isn't valid.)

More importantly, some of the groups included in the lawsuit may actually qualify for a full exemption from the law. But since no one has yet applied for or been denied an exemption, they were unable to prove in court that the law could or would harm them in any way.

“The plaintiffs face no direct and immediate harm," says the court order. "And one can only speculate whether the plaintiffs will ever feel any effects from the rule when the temporary enforcement safe harbor terminates." Urbom said the plaintiffs could only prove they would be harmed in "an indirect, speculative way."

The judge's ruling certainly makes sense, and it doesn't prevent a further lawsuit if indeed the plaintiffs are denied an exemption from the law. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if other courts rule the same way on the other pending suits.