Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | 10:05 p.m.
OKLAHOMA CITY — A group of nearly 200 Catholic employers filed a new lawsuit in Oklahoma against the federal government Wednesday, hoping to stop parts of the federal health care law that force them to provide insurance that covers contraceptives.
The recently formed Catholic Benefits Association, which includes archdioceses, an insurance company and a nursing home, takes issue with a compromise in the Affordable Health Care Act offered by the Obama administration that attempted to create a buffer for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups that oppose birth control. The law requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage and creates a way to reimburse them.
The association says that still forces Roman Catholic employers to violate church teachings.
"Religious liberty encompasses more than the right to worship; it includes the right to freely exercise religion, to allow religion to inform not merely our private beliefs, but also our public actions," the Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of Oklahoma City.
Under the health care law, most health insurance plans have to cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives as preventive care for women, free of cost to the patient. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the birth control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the general public are not. That includes charitable organizations, universities and hospitals.
The compromise for such religiously affiliated groups is triggered when those groups a form for the insurer saying that it objects to the coverage. The insurer can then go forward with the coverage.
The government has argued that the church-related entities have to do very little to be "exempted," but Catholic groups say signing that form makes them complicit in providing contraceptive coverage, and therefore violates their religious beliefs.
The Catholic Benefits Association wants to offer insurance that wouldn't provide contraception coverage.
The association's lawsuit was filed in the same federal court as a similar lawsuit filed by the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores, which does not want to provide insurance coverage for certain contraception that if finds objectionable. Hobby Lobby has won favorable rulings in that federal court and at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to take Hobby Lobby's challenge this month.
The Catholic groups want a judge to temporarily block the law, saying the federal government's definition of a "religious employer" is too narrowly interpreted as a house of worship. They also say countless other exemptions have been carved out for small businesses, "grandfathered" plans and some other religious groups, including the Amish and three health care-sharing ministries that are evangelical Protestant.
"The government's interest in the widespread availability of contraception cannot be compelling when defendants have exempted millions of plans, covering tens of millions of employees, from the mandate," lawyers for the groups say.
They also say there's no reason for the government to favor other religions over Catholics.