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The Diocese of Pittsburgh has filed a lawsuit charging that the federal government created illegal barriers to its request for information about lobbyist influence on the HHS contraception mandate.
“We think there has been a wide variety of groups trying to influence the administration to keep the sterilization, contraception and abortion pill parts of the mandate,” Mickey Pohl, a lawyer for the diocese, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
He added that the diocese is “trying to find out what the communication has been back and forth to HHS, and the reason HHS is fighting religious organizations so hard not to change the preventative care mandate.”
The diocese’s lawsuit, filed in federal court July 1, says that federal officials at the Health and Human Services department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wanted $1.8 million and up to five years to respond to the attorney’s Freedom of Information Act request for the relevant records.
The demand came months after the attorney’s September 2012 request for information.
Officials later changed their fee to $25,000 in processing charges, though Pohl said the offer of a three-year timeline was still unacceptable.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the diocese, as well as Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and the diocese’s Catholic Cemeteries Association.
The Catholic institutions are challenging the mandate, which requires employers to cover or facilitate payment for employee sterilizations and contraception drugs, including some abortion-causing drugs.
The lawsuit said that the government has been “patently uncooperative” with the information request, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Pohl said the federal officials’ demands for the payment and the lengthy waiting time violated legal requirements that they provide public information in a timely manner and at reasonable cost.
“Just because it’s a politically sensitive issue, the people at HHS shouldn’t decide they’re above the law and try to stonewall the provision of material requested under the Freedom of Information Act,” Pohl said.
“The law was written and it doesn’t favor either side – it’s just a good thing for citizens to get information that is not privileged.”
Over 200 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate on the grounds that it requires them to act in a way that violates their religious beliefs.
The Obama administration says that it has resolved concerns over religious freedom through its recent revisions to the mandate, although many religious groups argue that the updated requirements still force them to cooperate in something they believe to be immoral.
Abortion "rights" groups have largely supported the mandate, and some groups used it to rally support for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Some reports have questioned their influence on the mandate’s creation.
In November 2011, William J. Cox, president of the California-based Alliance of Catholic Health Care, told a Congressional subcommittee that the federal mandate’s original language was based on a California bill.
That bill’s religious exemption was “painstakingly crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union to specifically exclude religious institutional missions like health care providers, universities and social service agencies,” he said.
Cox said that during the debate on the California bill, the then-head of Planned Parenthood in California said the wording was designed to close the “Catholic gap” in contraceptive coverage.