Diocese of Erie responds to appeal ruling

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Erie Diocese Shield

The Diocese of Erie was disappointed by the opinion issued last week, February 11, 2015. in the cases the Erie and Pittsburgh dioceses had brought against the government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the United States Court of Appeals. At issue was whether the dioceses—which are exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage for products and services against its teachings—can be considered separate from the nonprofit charitable and educational organizations they sponsor. If this ruling is allowed to stand, or unless Congress acts, it could mean that numerous entities operated by the Diocese of Erie may face the threat of crushing financial penalties if they refuse to comply with the mandate. In November 2013, after an evidentiary hearing at which The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of Erie, The Most Rev. David Zubik, bishop of Pittsburgh, and The Most Rev. Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, testified, a preliminary injunction was issued by the United States District Court in Pittsburgh. That was made a permanent injunction in December 2013, after which the United States appealed.
The injunction had blocked the application of the regulations of the Affordable Care Act to the dioceses, Catholic Charities and related organizations. In a 3-0 decision authored by Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, the U.S. Court of Appeals today reversed the district court’s order granting the injunctions.
The court found that the regulations did not impose a substantial burden on the religious organizations and disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the regulations improperly divided the Catholic Church into two tiers, with houses of worship getting an exemption and related religious organizations getting lesser protection. The Court of Appeals also reversed the order granting an injunction for Geneva College in its case. The Geneva case had been consolidated on appeal with the dioceses’ cases.
“The lower court ruling acknowledged that the good works the church provides are integral to who we are as believers,” Bishop Persico said. The new ruling means that the United States government has divided religious entities, including the Catholic Church, into two wings: (1) a “worship” wing limited to “houses of worship and religious orders” that provide religious services; and (2) a “charitable and educational” wing that provides what the government viewed as secular services. By that definition, agencies run by the church in all 13 counties of the Diocese of Erie, including the St. Martin Center in Erie, The Prince of Peace Center in Farrell, other Catholic Charities agencies as well as educational institutions including Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria Academy, will not be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide services the church considers objectionable. The diocese argued that the artificial distinction ignores the reality that the Catholic Church engages in charity and education as an exercise of religion. It maintains that by excluding Catholic charitable and educational organizations from the category of exempt “religious employers,” the U.S. government mandate is forcing the Catholic Church to act contrary to beliefs. “Religious liberty means more than being able to go to Mass on Sunday,” Bishop Persico said. “It also means we should have the ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans in accordance with our religious beliefs.” He also said if the church is not free in its conscience and exercise of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.
“Freedom of religion is about much more than worshipping at Mass on Sunday,” Bishop Persico said. “We live out our faith through charitable and educational outreach.” The Diocese of Erie will study the opinion with its legal counsel and decide on its future course of action including possibly asking for rehearing by the full Court of Appeals or filing a petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court. “We are, of course, very disappointed that the Court of Appeals did not accept our position that the threat of massive fines if we do not take action that causes the provision of services through our health plans, which we consider morally objectionable, is a substantial burden on the exercise of our religious beliefs,” Bishop Persico said.
The bishop also indicated his ongoing gratitude for the legal efforts of the Pittsburgh- based Jones Day law firm which has handled this issue on behalf of the Diocese of Erie on a pro bono basis.

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