The federal government yesterday agreed to forego indefinitely any attempt to enforce a law that requires employers to provide paid leave for employes who have abortions, and to pay the costs of some of those abortions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, through assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Cowen, made the agreement pending the outcome of a suit filed by two major Catholic organizations seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt, who indicated he would have issued a temporary order blocking enforcement of the law if the agreement had not been reached, set the next hearing in the case for July 5.
The law is part of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that was signed last October. It requires, among other things, that employers pay all expenses of abortions performed "where the life of the mother is endangered."
The U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said in their suit yesterday that provision was "particularly subject to abuse" and that it violates the First Amendment rights of organizations who find abortions "morally abhorrent."
Since some doctors can be expected to take a broad view of this category, it is tantamount "to abortion on demand at the discretion of the doctor," the groups said in a statement issued yesterday.
The Catholic Conference generally had supported the Pregnancy Discriminations Acts before Congress, but sought inclusion of an amendment excluding abortion from coverage. The act generally is a health benefit plan covering pregnancy, childbirth and related matters.
EEOC officials said yesterday that they were not aware of the Catholic groups' noncompliance with the law until the suit was filed. Attorney Cowen said, however, that no action was planned for now and that, so far, the EEOC had not taken any steps too enforce the law against any employers.
Cowen made it clear that if the statute ultimately is upheld, the EEOC could file suit against employers who continued to ignore the law in the time period the suit was pending. There are no fines or penalties involved in the enforcement provisions, but employers can be forced to provide the benefits retroactively.
The two Catholic groups filed the suit on behalf of all employers affected by the law, especially noting that it applied potentially to nearly 23,000 Catholic organization across the U.S.
They said the provisions in question compel employers to treat the practice of abortion as " a commonplace, an illness, a fringe benefit. The compulsion to participate in the trivialization of this practice and moreover the compulsion to become the economic means through which this practice is carried forward, greatly offends the moral, ethical and religious convictions" of Catholic organizations and others.
In addition to being forced to pay benefits they find morally wrong, the Catholic groups noted that failure to comply with the statute could result in their loss of Federal contracts such as one it has with the State Department concerning the resettlement of refugees.
Cowen argued yesterday that there was no urgency in the court's hearing the matter since the law had been passed several months ago and had been implemented with regulations approved two months ago. However, at Pratt's urging Cowen and EEOC officials agreed that they would not file any enforcement actions until Pratt decides the case.
Pratt began yesterday's hearing by telling the attorneys in the case that he has a daughter who is a nun and a nephew who recently was ordained a priest, and asked whether the government wanted him to step out of the case.
"I feel no disqualification myself," Pratt said. Cowen told the judge he agreed.