OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal judge has granted nearly 200 Catholic employers an injunction to temporarily prevent the U.S. government from forcing them to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
The Catholic Benefits Association filed a lawsuit in March alleging that a provision of the Affordable Care Act forced them to violate their religious objections to contraception and abortion-inducing drugs. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David Russell of Oklahoma City 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.
An attorney for the government, trial attorney Bradley P. Humphreys of the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment Thursday on the judge's ruling.
Catholic officials praised the decision.
"The administration has already effectively granted exemptions from the mandate to various employers whose plans cover more than 130 million employees," Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said in a statement. "We're simply seeking the same exemption for Catholic employers who have religious objections to the unjust requirements of the mandate."
President of the Catholic Benefits Association Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, said the group was formed to support Catholic employers in providing quality, cost-competitive and morally compliant health care benefits for their employees.
"Yesterday's decision makes this a reality," Lori said.
The owners of the Hobby Lobby won a favorable ruling in a similar lawsuit in the same federal court and at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The chain of arts-and-crafts stores does not want to provide insurance coverage for certain forms of contraception that it finds objectionable on religious grounds.
Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in March but have not handed down a ruling.
Coakley said Catholic employers "care deeply" about the health and well-being of their employees.
"We are grateful for the ruling, but continue to pray that our leaders recognize that Catholics, whether bishops or businessmen, cannot in good conscience provide insurance that covers drugs and procedures that undermine the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life," Coakley said.
"Religious freedom entails more than the right to worship and any contrary legislation must be opposed," he said.