Yesterday, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. handed Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College a substantial victory in their challenges to the HHS mandate.
Wheaton’s religious convictions prevent it from providing its employees with access to abortion-causing drugs as mandated by the federal government. Wheaton College’s lawsuit, filed July 18, 2012, seeks to preserve its right to offer health insurance to employees that aligns with its beliefs.
Last summer, two lower courts dismissed the Wheaton and Belmont cases as premature. On Tuesday, the appellate court reinstated those cases, and ordered the Obama Administration to report back every 60 days—starting in mid-February—until the Administration makes good on its promise to issue a new rule that protects the Colleges’ religious freedom. The new rule must be issued by March 31, 2013.
"We are grateful that the Circuit Court's ruling—which is substantially a victory for Wheaton College—makes it clear that the original judge was wrong to dismiss our case and that we are suffering real harm as a result of the HHS mandate,” said Wheaton College president Dr. Philip Ryken. “We stand ready to resume our pending lawsuit if the federal government fails to respect our rights of religious conscience by providing the exemption we have requested."
The court based its decision on two concessions that government lawyers made in open court. First, the government promised “it would never enforce [the mandate] in its current form” against Wheaton, Belmont Abbey or other similarly situated religious groups. Second, the government promised it would publish a proposed new rule “in the first quarter of 2013” and would finalize it by next August. The administration made both concessions under intense questioning by the appellate judges.
The court deemed the concessions a “binding commitment” and has retained jurisdiction over the case to ensure the government follows through.
“This is a win not just for Belmont Abbey and Wheaton, but for all religious non-profits challenging the mandate,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Wheaton College in its case. “The government has now been forced to promise that it will never enforce the current mandate against religious employers like Wheaton and Belmont Abbey and a federal appellate court will hold the government to its word.”
While the government had previously announced plans to create a new rule, it has not yet taken the steps necessary to make that promise legally binding. Lower courts dismissed the colleges’ cases while the government contemplated a new rule, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided the cases should stay alive while it scrutinizes whether the government will meet its promised deadlines. The court acted quickly, issuing Tuesday’s order just days after hearing lengthy arguments.
More information regarding the College’s lawsuit is available via its July 18 news release, and its Frequently Asked Questions. A Case Summary, Frequently Asked Questions about legal challenges to the HHS mandate, and a Media Information Sheet are available on the Becket Fund website.