Apr 24, 2014

Federal court orders preliminary relief from HHS mandate for FOCUS




NATIONAL


(CNS file photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

By Catholic News Service

DENVER (CNS) -- The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado issued an order April 23 granting a preliminary injunction on enforcement of the federal contraceptive mandate against the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

In its lawsuit, filed with the court in December, FOCUS argued that being required to provide coverage it morally opposes violates its freedom of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows for religious exceptions to general laws in certain circumstances.

The 400-employee organization also cited the Fifth Amendment, which protects "against abuse of government authority" and the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute that governs the way the government's administrative agencies may propose and establish regulations.

"Faith-based organizations should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis," said Michael J. Norton, a lawyer who represented FOCUS in the suit.

"If the administration can punish Christian ministries simply because they want to abide by their faith, there is no limit to what other freedoms it can take away," he said in a statement. "The court was right to block enforcement of this unconstitutional mandate against FOCUS."

Norton is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, whose lawyers are representing Catholic and other religious organizations who have filed suit against the mandate.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services requires nearly all employers to provide their employees with health insurance coverage for contraceptives, some abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations. It includes an exemption for some religious employers that fit its criteria. The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.

The Obama administration argues that its third-party accommodation is a compromise that allows nonexempt employers to avoid having to provide coverage they find morally objectionable but gives employees the coverage. This requires such employers to complete a form and give it to a third party -- usually their insurance plan's administrator -- who, in turn, would be required to provide the contraceptive coverage and be reimbursed under federal health exchanges.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case to support government's side, the American Civil Liberties Union and its Colorado affiliate said the "right to practice one's faith, or no religion, is one of our most treasured liberties and is of vital importance to the ACLU."

The brief argued that the HHS mandate does not violate any employer's religious freedom. Instead, it prevents gender discrimination, allowing women "full control of their reproductive lives and to decide whether and when to have children," the brief said.

The ACLU said if FOCUS is permitted to reject the third-party arrangement, it would be discriminating against its women employees.

However, FOCUS, like other organizations that have filed lawsuits against the mandate, said the accommodation still does not solve the problem of being involved in providing coverage it rejects for moral reasons.

Based in Denver, FOCUS originated at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in 1998. The fellowship's missionaries are present on 74 college campuses around the country.

They befriend students and help them develop a personal relationship with Christ, then send them forth to evangelize others.