A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a suit brought by Roman Catholic church officials, challenging a U.S. law that requires employers to pay for their employes' abortions in certain cases.

Judge John H. Pratt ruled that the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops had brought their case to court too early -- before the government had even figured out what the new law means or how to enforce it.

When they filed their lawsuit last June, both groups acknowledged that they were not in compliance with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which took effect in April. Among other things, the act stipulates that when employers pay sick leave, they must pay it for time off for abortions and that when employes receive health insurance coverage, it must cover abortions when "the life of the mother is endangered."

The groups contended, among other things, that the law forces them to pay for procedures it considers morally wrong, thus violating the members' right to exercise their religion freely. By refusing to comply with the act's provisions, the two groups said that they risked cancelation of government contracts, including a refugee resettlement agreement they have with the State Department.

Pratt said, however, that the two religious groups had failed to show that they faced a real or immediate threat of loss as a result of the act. Without more than a "hypothetical" claim of injury, Pratt said, the U.S. court cannot take up the case.

The organization's plain failure to provide the benefits does not "in and of itself" violate the act, Pratt said. A violation would occur when an employe requests, and is denied, the benefits, Pratt said, and so far that has not occurred.

Whether the two religious groups are violating the act, the government's reaction to any employe complaint is speculative, because its interpretation of the act is in "disarry," Pratt said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which would receive such complaints, "is in a state of confusion" on the meaning of the act, he said.

The probability that the EEOC, particularly with its staggering caseload of pending cases . . . will begin active enforcement of the [act] against anyone, let along [the church groups] is even more conjectural," Pratt wrote in a 13-page opinion released Tuesday.

Pratt also noted that the two groups had not been denied their constitutional right to exercise their religious beliefs since they had convinced their insurers to omit coverage that they had found objectionable.

Pratt noted that both groups could bring their case to court again once the issues surrounding the act have developed to the point where they are ready to be heard by the court.