By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 3, 2014
ATLANTA—U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey Jr. has ruled that two organizations affiliated with the Atlanta Archdiocese—Catholic Charities Atlanta and Catholic Education of North Georgia Inc.—cannot be required to comply with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
In a 91-page decision issued March 26, Judge Duffey ruled that enforcement of the 2013 Final Rules of the mandate violated the Catholic organizations’ First Amendment right of freedom of speech, as well as protections established under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
His ruling permanently enjoined Health and Human Services from enforcing the contraceptive mandate against Catholic Charities Atlanta and CENGI.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, and the Diocese of Savannah and Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., were the plaintiffs filing the federal lawsuit, along with Catholic Charities and CENGI. The lawsuit was filed against the Department of Health and Human Services and its Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in October 2012.
Judge Duffey ruled that the two dioceses were already exempt from compliance with the contraceptive coverage in their health plans because they are considered to be “religious employers” under the Final Rules.
However, the two other corporations did not receive that status.
Both CENGI and Catholic Charities, instead, would have had to pursue an “accommodation,” requiring them to complete a form to avoid paying for or arranging for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in their employees’ health insurance plan. They would have to give the form to their insurance plan’s third party administrator, who, in turn, would be required to provide the contraceptive coverage and be reimbursed under federal health exchanges.
Not applying for the accommodation would have meant a daily fine of $100 per employee. Cancellation of the entire health plan to avoid the contraceptive mandate would have meant an annual fine of $2,000 per person. Also, CENGI and Catholic Charities were not permitted under the Final Rules to communicate their religious beliefs about contraception to the third party administrator.
“The government has imposed a blanket ban on CENGI and Catholic Charities prohibiting them from a wide spectrum of communications, including merely advising or persuading a TPA (third party administrator) to not provide contraceptive coverage. The government has not offered any explanation for justifying the infringement on the non-exempt plaintiffs’ freedom of speech,” wrote Judge Duffey. “Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on their claim that Final Rules unconstitutionally restrict their freedom of speech.”
Judge Duffey’s opinion also said the contraceptive mandate and the “accommodation” violated protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that the government should not substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling justification and, if there is a compelling justification, it should use the least restrictive means.
The law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP, of Atlanta, and attorneys E. Kendrick Smith and Janine Metcalf of the international firm of Jones Day, represented the Catholic dioceses and organizations. They provided their services pro bono.
Attorney Stephen M. Forte, managing partner of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, commented on the court’s ruling that the government did not show a compelling interest or that the “accommodation” is the least restrictive means.
“The Court noted that millions of women who are not employed by organizations such as CCA (Catholic Charities Atlanta) and CENGI will not have access to such contraceptive services in their health plans because grandfathered plans, small businesses and churches are all exempt from the contraceptive mandate,” said Forte. “Why then burden CCA and CENGI by requiring them to seek an ‘accommodation’?”
Forte said the injunction issued by the federal court is permanent unless overturned on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
He said the decision of the federal court in Atlanta is not binding on other federal cases, “but it could be instructive or persuasive to other courts considering similar issues involving religious-based parties.”
Forte said that the court’s order and opinion is significant.
“The artificial distinction that the government seeks to draw between the Church as a house of worship (the Archdiocese) and the social service, charitable and educational activities of the Church through related religious organizations, such as CCA and CENGI, is inappropriate. The social service, charitable and educational activities of the Church cannot be separated from the identity and mission of the Church itself,” said Forte.
Bishop Hartmayer said that the ruling in favor of the diocese and its Catholic institutions is encouraging.
“I am pleased to live and serve in the state of Georgia where there is still a defense and a respect for the religious freedom to be exercised by all citizens who live and work here,” said Bishop Hartmayer in a written statement. “The judge’s argument addressed the fallacy that the new federal rules established an ‘accommodation’ for group health plans that may be exempted from the contraceptive mandate. Even though the new rules exempted those Catholic organizations that are self-insured, as is the Diocese of Savannah, it would require a third-party administrator of an employer’s self-insurance plan to provide the contraceptive services.”
Bishop Hartmayer continued by saying that Judge Duffey had made a wise decision that will safeguard and protect the right of religious freedom of Georgia citizens to be faithful to their religious beliefs.
“The battle to defend the right to life is far from over. We must continue to be vigilant and unified in upholding the sanctity of all human life,” he said.
Catholic Charities Atlanta is separately incorporated in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and serves and advocates for individuals and families facing adversity, regardless of their faith. It provides individual and family counseling, refugee resettlement services, immigration legal services, life skills education, family stabilization programs, crisis pregnancy services, and disaster recovery.
CENGI was incorporated as required when municipal bonds were issued to construct or expand a number of Catholic schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese. The nonprofit owns the assets of six schools in the archdiocese.