A prominent evangelical Christian college in Chicago’s suburbs has again sued the Obama administration, alleging that the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate violates its constitutional rights and represents discrimination against it and other similar quasi-religious institutions that oppose abortion.
On Dec. 13, Wheaton College filed a 16-count complaint in Chicago’s federal court against U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius and the secretaries of labor and the treasury, as well as the federal agencies they lead.
The college filed a similar complaint last year in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. A judge there, however, dismissed the suit in August 2012, saying it was premature at that time because the Obama administration had just rewritten its “safe harbor” policy to give the college an additional year to comply with the mandate.
The 48-page suit comes on the heels of a November decision by a split panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare as its commonly known, burdened the religious liberties of two businesses owned by practicing Catholics, whose beliefs state that contraception and abortion are sins.
It also follows a ruling issued earlier this month by a New York federal judge, who said several health and educational organizations affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church don't have to comply with the mandate because it violates their religious rights.
Attorneys for Wheaton College assert in the suit filed last week that the regulations promulgated by the HHS as part of the ACA would put the college in the position of providing coverage for certain procedures and drugs it says violate the established religious beliefs of the college, or pay more than $25 million in fines each year.
The college claims that, by placing Wheaton College in this position, Sebelius, the HHS and the Obama administration have violated both federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
Wheaton College is represented in the action by Christian Mark Poland of Bryan Cave LLP in Chicago, and Mark Rienzi and Adele Auxier Keim of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.
Just as in the case decided in November by the federal appeals panel, Wheaton College asserts that the mandate would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Constitution by requiring it to pay for medical services that violate its religious beliefs.
The college’s suit centers on the June 28, 2013 promulgation of the so-called “Final Mandate,” a HHS regulation under the ACA that requires most large employers to provide employees with health insurance coverage that includes “certain preventive services” without “any cost sharing” – meaning the plans could not require employees to pay anything out-of-pocket for the listed services.
In addition to birth control, the Obamacare mandate requires coverage of services that could include “abortion procedures” and “abortion-inducing drugs,” such as those used to prevent an already fertilized egg from implanting on the wall of a woman’s uterus, according to the suit.
The college notes that it follows “traditional Christian teachings on the sanctity of life,” in that it doesn’t oppose all forms of contraception, but does take issue with drugs like the morning after pill because it interferes “with the continued survival of a human embryo.”
In its suit, Wheaton College points out that it was one of several similar organizations that together submitted hundreds of thousands of comments to HHS opposing the rule and raising concerns over the potential conflict with religious liberties.
However, the college alleges, HHS “ignored” those comments and issued the regulation anyway.
Wheaton College acknowledges that HHS carved out an exemption for certain religious organizations, but asserts that the exemption was too narrow, as it was limited only to churches and closely affiliated organizations.
The college also notes an accommodation crafted by the Obama administration that would allow religious organizations, like Wheaton College, to shift the burden of providing such contraception coverage to a third-party provider.
But the college, like other critics of the proposal, claims the accommodation is insufficient, as it stands as “nothing more than a shell game that attempts to disguise the religious organization’s role as the central cog in the government’s scheme for expanding access to abortifacient services.”
Wheaton College further alleges that it and other similar religious employers were singled out by the Obama administration, in conjunction with abortion rights advocacy groups, all of whom “strongly oppose Wheaton’s religious teachings and beliefs regarding marriage and family.”
The college states that the administration has granted exemptions to non-religious employers from various other regulations associated with the ACA.
But, it asserts, the administration has to date refused to exempt religious employers from the mandate at the crux of the college’s suit, demonstrating “that the purpose of the Final Mandate, including the restrictively narrow scope of the religious employers exemption, is to discriminate against religious organizations that oppose abortion. “
In its suit, Wheaton College asks the court to find the contraception mandate unconstitutional, and to issue an injunction preventing the regulations from taking effect, particularly before July 1, 2014, when the college’s new health insurance plan year begins.
Bethany Krajelis contributed to this report.