Religious colleges join fight over contraceptives

Lawsuits challenge Obama’s mandate

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As Capitol Hill skirmishes over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, the battle is expanding into courtrooms, with more religious colleges joining a growing wave of lawsuits charging that the requirement for employer insurance to provide free contraception violates religious freedom.

Louisiana College sued the administration over the weekend, and Geneva College will follow suit Tuesday. Both argue that the rule treads on the Constitution and a 1993 federal statute banning laws that interfere with the exercise of religion.

With the new lawsuits, at least a half-dozen organizations are challenging the mandate, escalating a furor the Obama administration tried to quell earlier this month in a move that satisfied some, but left the Catholic Church and other religious leaders fuming.

Catholic institutions, backing their church’s historical stance against artificial contraception, have led the fight, with lawsuits filed by Belmont Abbey College, Priests for Life and EWTN Global Catholic Television Network. But evangelicals have joined the fray as well, since such “morning-after pills” as Plan B and Ella, which pro-lifers denounce as potential abortifacients, are among the list of contraceptives that insurers must provide.

“That is really what has pushed us across the line,” said Ken Smith, president of Geneva College, a Pennsylvania school with Reformed Presbyterian roots. “We must cover or provide under our health policies abortion-inducing drugs.”

The Obama administration tried to quell the furor surrounding the contraception mandate by expanding an exemption that churches already enjoy to include religious schools, charities and hospitals, and by requiring insurers to pay for employees’ contraception under a separate plan.

Opponents have slammed the proposal as bookkeeping gimmickry and call it a threat to religious liberty regardless of what a church teaches on contraception.

“It doesn’t matter if someone believes in it or not,” said Mike Johnson, a faculty member at Louisiana College, a Southern Baptist school in Pineville, La. “If they have a sincerely held religious belief, under current law they’re forced to violate it. It really comes down to a matter of religious liberty and not so much distinctions” among religions’ teachings.

Mr. Johnson and other opponents also are skeptical of President Obama’s announcement that he would broaden the exemptions — a promise they say is not backed up in the rule that has been issued. Even if it were, requiring insurers to provide “free” contraception through separate plans just means that insurers will pass along the costs to employers.

“The coverage isn’t really separate from the employer’s health plan, and it isn’t free,” said Mr. Johnson, who also is arguing his school’s case as an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund. “The insurers aren’t going to print money to enable some kind of free coverage. They’re going to pass that along. What [Mr. Obama] said on Feb. 10 really doesn’t solve the problem at all.”

The Alliance Defense Fund filed a brief with a federal court Saturday arguing that the mandate treads on the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion and violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

With opponents continuing to call on Mr. Obama to overturn the entire mandate — and congressional Republicans pushing legislation that would effectively accomplish the same thing — he hasn’t shown signs of backing down.

The president has said he struck the right balance of protecting religious liberty while ensuring access to free contraception. He also has touted excusing more employers from the mandate and giving nonexempt employers an extra year before they must comply.

On Friday, the administration asked a federal court to dismiss the case brought by Belmont Abbey, saying the case wasn’t “ripe.” According to the administration, the lawsuit was filed too soon because the mandate doesn’t go into effect until August and will have a one-year grace period after that.

“In the meantime, the enforcement safe harbor will be in effect such that plaintiff … will not suffer any hardship as a result of its failure to cover contraceptive services,” the administration wrote.

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