- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to enter a pending federal lawsuit to argue against Roman Catholic organizations in Wyoming that are trying to block the birth-control coverage requirement in the federal health care overhaul.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne and other organizations filed a lawsuit in January objecting to a requirement in the Affordable Care Act that they provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortion services for their non-ministerial workers. The legal challenge is one of many similar cases going on around the country.

Federal government lawyers are opposing a request from the Wyoming Catholic organizations for a court order to block the birth-control coverage requirement. U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper has scheduled a hearing for next month on the groups’ request for an injunction to block the rule while their lawsuit runs its course.

The ACLU filed papers Monday asking Skavdahl to allow the group to enter a friend of the court brief in support of the federal government’s position.

Jen Horvath, lawyer for the ACLU in Wyoming, said Monday the group wants to argue in the case because it traditionally has been involved in helping women protect their reproductive rights in access to health care.

Attempts to reach a lawyer and a spokesman for the diocese for comment were not immediately successful on Monday.

Federal government lawyers filed a response to the groups’ lawsuit last week. They stated that the Diocese of Cheyenne is exempt from the contraception coverage requirement because of a pending injunction in a similar case involving the Diocese of Nashville. The government lawyers also stated that an existing injunction issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case covers another plaintiff in the Wyoming case, Wyoming Catholic College.

The government lawyers told Skavdahl the remaining Wyoming plaintiffs, including Catholic schools and charities, could meet the requirements of the federal health care law by certifying they meet certain religious criteria. Making that certification would relieve the groups of responsibility for providing their employees with contraceptive coverage and instead turn it over to third-party insurance coverage, the government stated.

The Wyoming groups have stated that making the certification itself would violate their religious freedom. They stated the Affordable Care Act put them to a stark choice: “violate their religious beliefs or suffer crippling consequences.”

Horvath said the ACLU is prepared to argue that making the certification would not be a burden on the groups’ religious freedom.

“All this rule does is requires the Diocese of Cheyenne to send a two-page form to their third-party administrator, basically the health care plan, that due to religious objections, they want to exclude contraceptive coverage from their health care, their health insurance,” Horvath said. “It’s no different materially from what they had to do before this rule went into effect and it’s not a burden on their religious freedom.”

Other provisions of the Affordable Care Act have proven unpopular with many Wyoming politicians.

Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, directed Wyoming to enter the multi-state challenge to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. That challenge led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling generally upholding a provision in the law that allows the government to impose a tax on people who don’t get health insurance.

The Wyoming Legislature repeatedly has refused to expand Medicaid coverage of low-income adults despite the offer of federal funds to cover the bulk of the cost of the increase. Expanding Medicaid is a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act.

Many Wyoming lawmakers have said they don’t trust federal promises to continue funding for Medicaid expansion in coming years.

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