April Burbank | Development Manager
Wheaton College has appealed a federal judge’s decision to dismiss its lawsuit over a government mandate that requires its insurance plans to pay for a range of contraceptives.
The mandate, which is defined by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, requires most employers to pay for contraceptive services and counseling, including several contraceptive drugs that Wheaton says violate its beliefs about abortion.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle dismissed Wheaton’s lawsuit on Aug. 24 after a last-minute change by the Obama administration allowed Wheaton to qualify for a one-year “safe harbor” from the mandate. The government has also promised to accommodate religious liberty concerns by changing the payment structure for objectionable contraceptive services sometime during the next year.
Rather than waiting for that change, the college pressed ahead in its lawsuit with an appeal on Aug. 29. The college’s concerns will now be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, according to Hannah Smith, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the organization whose lawyers are representing Wheaton.
“The mandate is federal law. ... The case is ready to be heard now, and we should not have to wait until the government comes up with this so-called accommodation, which is not part of the original mandate and the original exemption,” Smith said. “So I think the main point is that the religious liberty issues that Wheaton sued over have not been addressed.”
Wheaton’s case was the third lawsuit against the HHS mandate that has been dismissed on technical grounds, but Wheaton College is the first plaintiff to file an appeal.
In July, federal judges dismissed two lawsuits brought against the mandate. One case represented the attorneys general of Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas; the other was filed by Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal arts college in North Carolina. In both of those cases, the judges wrote that the lawsuits were premature.
Neither of those dismissal decisions has been appealed, according to Emily Hardman, communications director at the Becket Fund.
Even though Wheaton College now has safe harbor from the mandate, it will still be in violation of federal law and could face private lawsuits authorized by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to a press release on the Becket Fund’s website. Before the case was dismissed, Becket Fund lawyers pointed to the possibility of private lawsuits to demonstrate that Wheaton’s complaint was not premature.
Banner photo courtesy of Ed Pfueller/The Catholic University of America
Printed in the September 7, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to email@example.com.