With all of the practical ObamaCare disasters in the news the last few weeks, we need to still keep an eye on the threat it represents to religious liberty and free expression.  Thankfully, yet another federal court has recognized those dangers inherent in the HHS contraception mandate issued as part of the regulatory scheme implementing the Affordable Care Act:

The right of church-related organizations to keep a clear conscience trumps the federal government’s desire to improve access to contraceptives, a federal judge ruled Thursday in a preliminary decision that could set the tone in a legal fight of national scope.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab granted an injunction sought by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Diocese of Erie and several affiliated nonprofit groups that do not want their insurance administrators to provide what they call “preventive services” coverage.

The injunction allows them to continue to offer insurance that doesn’t include contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs while litigation continues. Without the injunction, the insurance administrators for the organizations — though not the dioceses themselves — would have had to start providing the coverage Jan. 1.

This is not just a philosophical victory, either.  An adverse ruling could have cost Catholic Charities $2 million a year in fines, and forced the venerable institution to start laying off workers as a result:

“We knew there would be at least a $2 million hit annually if there wasn’t some protection from the court,” said Susan Rauscher, executive director of Catholic Charities. She said she was putting together contingency plans to “keep as many employees employed as we could.”

Judge Schwab focused on the real impact of the HHS argument that the government could force religious organizations to violate their own doctrines if they employed and/or served the communities as a whole.  To do so, Schwab wrote, would be to sever the Catholic Church from its service mission and to define religious expression as only that activity which takes place inside a church, temple, or synagogue:

The judge wrote in his 65-page opinion that he was ruling on whether “the Government will be permitted to sever the Catholic Church into two parts (i.e., worship and faith, and ‘good works’) — in other words, whether the Government will be successful in restricting the Right to the Free Exercise of Religion as set forth in the First Amendment to a Right to Worship only.”

The judge wrote that he “is constrained to understand why religious employers such as Catholic Charities and Prince of Peace Center — which were born from the same religious faith, and premised upon the same religious tenets and principles, and operate as extensions and embodiments of the Church, but are not subsidiaries of a parent corporation — would not be treated the same as the Church itself with respect to the free exercise of that religion.”

Amazingly, the American Civil Liberties Union is arguing the opposite — that people with religious conviction don’t have civil rights to free expression of their religious beliefs outside of those churches.  They will participate in the appeal of this ruling, but the real action will come from the Supreme Court next week.  As Rich Lord reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the justices will decide whether to hear appeals on four cases involving for-profit employers who have religious objections to the mandate.  The decisions on whether to hear them will send a big signal to lower courts on just how they see the First Amendment protection of religious expression, and whether they agree with the Obama administration and the ACLU that it only protects a “freedom to worship” rather than a freedom to live one’s faith.

Stay tuned.