If the “opt-out” process in the government’s health care mandate is a burden on churches, it’s also a burden on religious nonprofits, a private Beaver Falls college and other faith-based nonprofits argue in a brief filed this week with the Supreme Court.

The fact that the government imposes the process on the nonprofits but not on houses of worship “just proves the point that they are burdening the religious exercise of entities like Geneva College,” said Greg Baylor of Alliance Defending Freedom, the Washington-based law firm representing the college and several of the other nonprofits.

The high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case at the end of March. A Justice Department spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment. The government has until Feb. 10 to file its own brief.

Geneva College, which is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, is one of 37 nonprofits challenging an Affordable Care Act mandate that requires them either to cover contraceptives and abortion-inducing medications or to sign a paper that certifies they morally object to providing the coverage.

Signing the paper would trigger a process that would have a third party, such as a private insurer, provide the coverage.

The nonprofits contend the requirement violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that blocks the federal government from placing a “substantial burden” on religious exercise unless it has a compelling reason to do so.

“The government mandate is unlawful, unjust and unnecessary,” said William J. Edgar, interim president of the college. “Geneva College is confident that the Supreme Court will restore justice by upholding freedom of conscience and freedom of religion for all Americans.”

Some of the nonprofits, such as Geneva, object to providing coverage for abortion-inducing drugs but don’t object to covering contraceptives. Others, including the nonprofits tied to the Pittsburgh and Erie Catholic dioceses, object to both.

The government regulation effectively relegates Catholic Charities and other diocese programs to “junior varsity” status, said Paul M. Pohl, one of the lawyers representing the dioceses.

“It’s the first time in American history that religious organizations get divided into two categories,” he said.

The underlying concern for the nonprofits is “that their health plans are being hijacked,” he said.

Another brief, filed with the court by the dioceses Monday, argues that the government has failed to prove how the opt-out requirement is less restrictive than the government directly providing coverage for women whose health plans don’t provide it.

The nonprofits initially won injunctions in Pittsburgh and Erie federal courts blocking the requirement, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February overturned those rulings.

The appeals court ruled that signing the paper doesn’t pose an additional burden on the nonprofits because they wouldn’t be required to pay for the coverage. The dioceses and Geneva argued that signing the document makes them an active participant in providing the coverage and violates their religious freedom.

The government could fine the nonprofits if they refuse to provide the coverage and also refuse to sign the paper.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
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