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Domestic News | October 9, 2012

Two Baptist schools sue over birth control mandate

Religious freedom

Colleges follow denomination's historical commitment to oppose government restrictions on religious liberty

Belin Chapel at Houston Baptist University (Photo courtesy of HBU)

Two more Christian colleges have filed suit against the federal government over the demand they cover contraceptive and abortifacient drugs under their health insurance policies.

Houston Baptist University and East Texas Baptist University, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, face annual fines of more than $10 million each if they don't comply with the mandate.

"While we are always reluctant to enter into lawsuits, the government has given us no choice," said Dr. Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, in a Becket Fund press release. "Either we violate our conscience or give in to the administration's heavy-handed attack upon our religious freedom. We will not comply with this unconstitutional mandate, and we plead with our government to respect the liberties given by God and enunciated in the Bill of Rights."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced earlier this year that as of Aug. 1 all employers would be required to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptive drugs, including emergency contraceptives that may cause early abortions. The government gave churches an exemption to the requirement, but social service organizations, colleges and other employers did not qualify for the religious exemption. Amid protests over the policy, the government granted a one-year "safe harbor" for institutions whose leaders said they would not comply.

The federal government now faces 33 lawsuits over the mandate. Many of the challenges include Christian colleges as plaintiffs. A federal judge in Washington D.C. has dismissed two suits already. But Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic school in North Carolina, and Wheaton College, in Illinois, appealed the dismissals last week. The court ruled the schools did not have standing to sue because they had not been harmed by the mandate yet. In their appeal, Becket Fund lawyers argue the possibility of having to drop their insurance next year puts schools at a competitive disadvantage for hiring this year.

Judges have ruled on the merits of only two cases so far. In Colorado, a District judge issued a preliminary injunction against the mandate in a case brought by HVAC manufacturer Hercules Industries. The judge in that case ruled the mandate could burden the business owners' religious freedom. But in Missouri, another judge ruled against mining company O'Brien Industrial Holdings. Paying directly for contraceptive coverage did not differ much from paying salaries that could then be used to buy contraceptives, the judge ruled.

O'Brien, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, likely will appeal the decision. The government has already filed an appeal in the Hercules Industries case. The government now faces challenges to the mandate in 10 of the 12 federal appeals court districts. The geographical spread of the cases helps ensure the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will take one of them.

Opposition to the mandate has united Catholic and evangelical protestant institutions, even though they don't share the same beliefs about all contraception. But all of the schools, organizations and businesses who have sued agree that the government should not force employers to do anything that violates their beliefs.

"Baptists have always advocated religious liberty, and religious liberty is what is at stake in this situation," said Dr. Samuel Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University. "As the famous Baptist preacher, George W. Truett once remarked, 'A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.' We are rising today to ensure that religious liberty, the first freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, is protected and preserved."