Wheaton’s federal lawsuit over religious liberty and contraception has been revived in appellate court, and now all eyes are fixed on the Obama administration’s next move.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit released an order on Dec. 18, 2012, that allowed Wheaton’s lawsuit to continue, now combined with a similar suit from Belmont Abbey College.
Both schools had raised concerns that they were being forced to violate their religious beliefs by including certain kinds of contraception in employee insurance plans.
“We believed that the decision at the district court was incorrect, and we’re very pleased that the panel of judges recognized this and reinstated the case,” said President Philip Ryken.
Under the Affordable Care Act, health insurance policies must cover “preventative services” for women, including all contraceptive methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Wheaton filed suit last summer, protesting that the mandate violated the college’s religious freedom by forcing it to cover emergency contraceptive pills that Wheaton believes may cause abortion.
Wheaton and other religious colleges and universities did not meet the government’s criteria for a religious exemption from the mandate, and Ryken said in the summer of 2012 that the college stood to face over $1.35 million in annual fines for noncompliance. The government later allowed Wheaton to qualify for a temporary one-year “safe harbor” from the mandate.
A district court dismissed the case in August 2012, arguing that Wheaton did not stand to face imminent injury from the mandate and that the government was already trying to address the college’s religious liberty concerns.
Like the district court, the appellate court recognized that the Obama administration’s future actions might ultimately make Wheaton’s lawsuit unnecessary. The three-judge panel took the case a step further, however, to ensure that the government follows through with the promises they made.
During oral arguments, a government lawyer said the Obama administration would “never enforce” the current mandate against Wheaton and Belmont Abbey, and that a revised version of the rule was coming this spring.
“We take the government at its word and will hold it to it,” the judges wrote, calling the government lawyers’ promises a “binding commitment.”
The Obama administration initially announced its plans to change the mandate in February 2012, but apart from that announcement, the government has taken no legally binding steps to change the mandate.
“Those nonbinding and temporary promises were made binding and permanent” in appellate court, said Mark Rienzi, a senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Wheaton.
The government must issue a revised mandate by the end of March. Until then, Wheaton’s lawsuit has been put on pause, and the government must update the court of its progress every 60 days.
Wheaton’s concerns were not entirely assuaged by this court order, and no one knows what kind of mandate the government will announce this spring. Ryken said the college has no basis for determining whether it will move forward with the case when that announcement comes.
“We are already needing to make health care decisions for the coming academic year, so the need to get this resolved is really in the present, not the future,” Ryken said.
Photo Credit: April Burbank
Printed in the January 25, 2013, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to email@example.com.