- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - A federal judge in Atlanta on Wednesday ruled that certain nonprofit organizations in Georgia affiliated with the Catholic Church are not subject to a contraception mandate included in the president’s health care law.

U.S. District Judge William Duffey permanently barred the federal government from enforcing the mandate against a nonprofit that operates Catholic schools in Georgia and a nonprofit Catholic charity group.

Duffey wrote that enforcing the mandate and a related rule against those entities would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a person’s religious practice.

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. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses are exempt from the mandate, but the other affiliated organizations, including schools, charitable institutions and hospitals are not.

Those groups are required to submit a form to their third-party insurers saying they object to the coverage. The insurer will then make the coverage available at no cost to the institution or the employee.

The government has argued that requires very little of the religiously affiliated entities, but Catholic groups have argued signing such a form makes them complicit in providing contraception coverage, which violates their religious beliefs.

Duffey also ruled the federal government cannot enforce that provision against the Georgia nonprofits.

A Department of Justice lawyer who represents the federal government in the case did not immediately respond to an after-hours telephone call and email seeking comment Wednesday.

The archdioceses of Atlanta and Savannah were among the parties that filed a lawsuit against the federal government in October. Duffey wrote that since the archdioceses are “entirely exempt” from the mandate, the schools and organizations they run directly are also exempt.

In contrast, the two entities affected by his ruling are independent nonprofits but are affiliated with the church. Catholic Education of North Georgia, Inc., carries out the archdiocese’s educational mission through five independent Catholic schools attended by nearly 12,000 students, according to court filings. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Inc. provides social services.

Similar challenges to the contraception mandate have been filed by Catholic-affiliated entities around the country with varying results - some judges have ruled in favor of the government while others have ruled in favor of the church-affiliated entities. The U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately be asked to decide the issue.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a challenge brought by the Hobby Lobby chain of stores and others that object to covering certain methods of birth control that they say can work after conception, which they say violates their religious beliefs. That case raises the question of whether for-profit companies have religious rights protected by law.