A last minute policy change absolving a Christian college from fines has enabled the federal government to avoid another legal challenge to its mandate for contraception coverage.
On Friday, a federal judge in Washington D.C. dismissed a suit brought by Wheaton College against the government. The judge ruled the evangelical school in Illinois no longer had grounds to challenge the requirement that it cover contraceptive and abortifacient drugs under student and faculty health insurance policies.
Wheaton sued the government last month as an Aug. 1 compliance deadline loomed. But the policy rewrite postpones Wheaton's deadline for another year and gives the government more time to prepare its case.
As part of the 2010 health care reforms, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced last year that all employers would be required to cover contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. The rules offered an exemption to churches but not other religious employers, including schools and social service agencies.
The mandate caused an uproar among Catholic and evangelical Protestant institutions, which vowed to fight the new rules. In an effort to delay the confrontation, the government offered religious employers a one-year reprieve, giving them until August 2013 to comply.
But Wheaton could not take advantage of the yearlong "safe harbor" because it had unknowingly offered coverage for abortifacient drugs Ella and Plan B, commonly referred to as "morning after" pills, under previous insurance policies. Without the reprieve, Wheaton faced thousands of dollars in fines every day.
Eleven Christian schools have filed legal challenges over the mandate. But Wheaton was the only one that failed to qualify for the exemption. As the first Christian college to incur fines over a lack of compliance, Wheaton appeared likely to be the first to get its day in court.
But with the latest policy change, the government succeeded in postponing Wheaton's suit for at least a year.
"The government has now re-written the 'safe harbor' guidelines three times in seven months, and is evidently in no hurry to defend the HHS mandate in open court," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Wheaton. "By moving the goalposts yet again, the government managed to get Wheaton's lawsuit dismissed on purely technical grounds. This leaves unresolved the question of religious liberty at the heart of the lawsuit."
Wheaton might appeal the judge's ruling.
In July, the same federal court dismissed a similar case brought by another Becket Fund client, Belmont Abbey College. Friday's dismissal leaves only nine remaining challenges brought by Christian colleges against the contraception mandate.
Only one suit, brought by a Colorado company owned by a Catholic family, has so far been granted legal standing. A federal court in Colorado issued an injunction against the mandate while the case moves forward.