The U.S. Supreme Court will likely take up the issue of whether religiously-affiliated nonprofits must pay for employees' birth-control under the federal health care overhaul in light of recent conflicting federal rulings, legal experts say.
Federal judges in northern Indiana recently issued opposing opinions in separate cases in which the University of Notre Dame and Grace College and Seminary sought preliminary injunctions blocking implementation of the federal birth-control mandate.
The judges' conflicting rulings mean Notre Dame had to begin providing birth-control coverage on Wednesday, while Grace College and Seminary — an evangelical Christian college — did not.
A third ruling by the judge who ruled in the Grace College case also found in a separate case that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, along with several other groups including the Franciscan Alliance, did not have to provide birth-control to their employees.
The three legal challenges in Indiana are among about 90 such appeals recently filed in federal courts across the nation. More than a dozen of those cases generated preliminary rulings, with decisions running about 2-to-1 in favor of religious groups seeking temporary stays that blocked implementation of the mandate.
David Orentlicher, co-director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the conflicting federal rulings highlight the complicated legal issues in the case.
"Until the Supreme Court rules, we don't have a decision that applies to everybody," Orentlicher told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/JLjOCK ).
The federal health care overhaul exempts churches from providing contraceptive services coverage, but he said nonprofits such as religious schools, medical facilities and charities get only an "accommodation."
As a result, those entities do not have to provide the coverage option as a part of their employee group plans but must direct workers to a third-party provider that will make the coverage available. Neither the religiously-affiliated university nor the employee has to pay for the alternative coverage, Orentlicher said, because the government picks up the tab in most cases.
But many groups still have strong opposition to the contraceptive measure, including the Franciscan Alliance, which was founded in Lafayette in 1875. It's grown to become one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the Midwest with 13 hospital campuses and 20,000 employees.
The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives.
"The acts and participation required of Franciscan Alliance would be contrary to Catholic faith and would force Franciscan Alliance to violate its religious beliefs," said alliance spokeswoman Sister Aline Shultz.
A legal team headed by Ohio attorney Matthew Kairis filed both the Notre Dame challenge, which was denied, and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend challenge, which was approved.
"Two different judges, two different rulings, on the same set of facts," Kairis told The Star.
Paul Browne, a Notre Dame spokesman, said the third-party administrator for the school's insurance program is notifying employees that a contraceptive program is available while the university appeals the federal judge's denial of an injunction.
"At the same time, we are notifying our employees that this coverage could be withdrawn if we win the appeal," Browne said.
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