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Catholics in Atlanta Go to Court to Challenge Contraceptive Mandate

Catholic officials in Atlanta are among religious groups seeking injunctions on health care law

, Daily Report

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Steve Forte
Steve Forte

Catholic officials in Atlanta are waiting for a federal judge here to rule on their challenge to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, an issue that made headlines last week when a U.S. Supreme Court justice ruled temporarily for nuns fighting the same provision in Colorado.

The Atlanta and Colorado cases are among 91 such suits across the country that have targeted the contraceptive mandate, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Colorado's Little Sisters of the Poor in the case pending before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Atlanta litigation—where lawyers from Smith Gambrell & Russell and Jones Day represent the challengers—is among two dozen cases still awaiting preliminary rulings. In 52 cases, federal judges have granted injunctions sought by religious institutions or private companies that asserted religious objections to contraceptives. Judges have denied injunction requests in seven other cases. Eleven have been dismissed, according to the Becket Fund.

All echo claims made by the Colorado nuns, whom Sotomayor on Dec. 31 temporarily exempted from compliance with contraceptive coverage requirements that took effect Jan. 1.

Sotomayor, who handles emergency applications from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, issued the temporary restraining order while the Little Sisters of the Poor—who lost at the district court level—await a ruling at the Tenth Circuit.

The Atlanta suit was filed in 2012 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Christ the King Catholic School, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah, and Bishop John Hartmayer.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to include preventive care for women. Those services include all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, including emergency contraceptives (also known as the "morning after" pill), sterilization procedures and associated education and counseling. Under the law, group health plans sponsored by some religious employers are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A key question raised by the nationwide litigation is just how broadly those exemptions may extend.

The Atlanta challenge, now before U.S. District Court Judge William Duffey, is built on the same framework as the Little Sisters of the Poor case. The plaintiffs in both cases argue that the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandates impermissibly interfere with the rights of religious institutions to practice the tenets of their faiths—namely faith-based objections to birth control, abortion and sterilization—without governmental interference. At the heart of the Atlanta suit is core Catholic doctrine—a belief "that sexual union should be reserved to married couples so committed to each other that they are open to the creation of life" and that "artificial interference with the creation of life," whether through abortion, sterilization or contraception, contradicts those core beliefs, according to the Atlanta complaint.

In Atlanta, the plaintiff religious institutions are represented by Stephen Forte, a partner at Smith Gambrell, and Jones Day partners David Monde and Kendrick Smith.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers in Washington are defending the federal government in the litigation.

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