The Pittsburgh diocese and its counterpart in Erie are challenging federal health care law changes that require contraceptive and abortion coverage in employee health plans. Tuesday's hearing was focused on whether U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab should block the government from enforcing the mandate while the dioceses pursue their lawsuits claiming the requirements violate their First Amendment right of religious freedom.
The Justice Department contends the church is exempt and that its charitable affiliates can be accommodated so they don't have to pay for the coverage they object to.
Last year a judge dismissed a previous lawsuit the Pittsburgh diocese filed over the same issues, saying it has not been harmed by the new health care legislation and that the government had promised to take steps to address religious objections. But the diocese sued again, saying the final regulations that take effect Jan. 1 are worse than the proposed regulations that prompted the earlier lawsuit.
Bishop David Zubik testified that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he signed a form that allowed the disputed services to be provided to employees. Zubik said the church is being asked to violate an important belief and a matter of conscience.
The Rev. Scott Jabo, president of Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, testified that even allowing a third-party company to provide the services to employees would be facilitating "a moral evil." Jabo said that if he were to help that to happen, "I'm committing a sin."
During a brief cross-examination by government lawyers, Jabo said he had no idea what percentage of church employees used contraceptives.
Jabo said that the Erie Catholic schools "have no way" of paying the potential fines for not providing coverage. He estimated that such fines could total $2.8 million per year, and that the total budget for the schools is about $10 million.
"In essence we'd have to shut our door completely," he said of the potential impact of such fines.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which is being sued in hopes a judge will free the dioceses from the mandates -- or declare them illegal -- has repeatedly declined to comment, instead referring to a past statement that explains its position. It reads in part: "The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is not violated by a law that is not specifically targeted at religiously motivated conduct and that applies equally to conduct without regard to whether it is religiously motivated."
Schwab will hear more arguments from lawyers Wednesday, and he plans to rule before the mandate takes effect Jan. 1.