HHS loses injunction argument in Oklahoma mandate case

The real stage for the HHS contraception mandate will be the Supreme Court, where arguments have already been heard on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases involving private-sector secular employers. The fight still continues in lower courts, however, and also in regard to religious employers. In Oklahoma, a federal judge issued an injunction on Wednesday blocking enforcement on more than 200 Catholic employers and thousands of parishes, thanks to a lawsuit filed in March by the Catholic Benefits Association. It is one of the few class-action suits being brought against the contraception mandate:

A government attorney declined to comment Thursday while Catholic officials praised a ruling by U.S. District Judge David Russell that granted an injunction that exempts members from any fines or penalties arising from not complying with the provision while their objections are litigated.

The association — which includes archdioceses, an insurance company and a nursing home across almost 2,000 Catholic parishes nationwide — believes in the Catholic teaching that their ministries should include health care to their employees. But members “also believe in the Catholic teaching that any artificial interference with the creation and nurture of new life is wrong,” Russell said.

“The harm posed to these plaintiffs absent relief is quite tangible — they will either face severe monetary penalties or be required to violate their religious beliefs,” he said.

CBA issued a statement shortly afterward:

The CBA’s general counsel, Martin Nussbaum, noted “this ruling is especially gratifying because this lawsuit, alone among the HHS contraceptive mandate cases, includes three groups of Catholic employers—“houses of worship” that are, by regulation, exempt; non-exempt ministries like colleges, Catholic Charities, and healthcare institutions; and Catholic-owned for profit businesses.” It is also one of only a few class action suits in this unprecedented situation in which so many religious groups have sued the federal government because its Mandate violates their religious beliefs.

Archbishop Paul Coakley, who also serves as VP to the CBA, praised the ruling in a separate statement:

“I’m heartened by today’s ruling,” Archbishop Coakley said. “Judge Russell was right to recognize that the Catholic employers of the Catholic Benefits Association have a right to allow their faith to inform not just their private beliefs, but also their public actions.

“The administration has been discriminatory to grant relief to some Catholic employers and not others based on whether they operate within the diocesan structure or at separately incorporated charitable organizations and for-profit businesses,” he explained. “Whether bishops or businessmen, Catholics cannot in good conscience provide employees with insurance that covers drugs and procedures that undermine the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life.”

“Today is a very good day for proponents of religious liberty in general and for the Catholic Benefits Association in particular,” he added.

The CBA provides health insurance and other benefits to more than 450 employers and parishes around the country. The injunction applies to all of those who get benefits through CBA, which makes it an attractive option now for employers who wish to follow their own religious values when offering benefits — at least as long as the injunction stands. The CBA does provide services for for-profit businesses as well as non-profits and church-related employers, so it may attract some significant new interest after this week’s developments.

This isn’t the end of the case, of course. But even if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga fail, there may be a better case for the Supreme Court to draw a line on interference with religious liberty with the new CBA case developing in Oklahoma. We’ll keep our eyes peeled. 

Note: Our former associate editor Tina Korbe Dzurisin works as communications director for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

Update: I’ve changed the headline, which erroneously stated that HHS lost the case. They haven’t yet — they just lost the argument on a temporary injunction, which suggests that CBA will get the better of the case. But the original headline was just wrong, as one commenter noted, and this is a little more accurate. My apologies.