Court grants Christian-run college temporary relief from HHS mandate
(CNS file photo)
By Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. Supreme Court late July 3 issued an unsigned opinion granting Christian-run Wheaton College in Illinois temporary relief from complying with the Department of Health and Human Services' federal contraceptive mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act.
The order in Wheaton College v. Burwell came three days after the court issued its Hobby Lobby decision saying that closely held for-profit companies could be exempted from some requirements of the federal health care law because of the owners' religious beliefs.
The court said the college, located west of Chicago, does not have to fill out the self-certification form -- known as EBSA Form 700 -- directing a third party, usually the manager of an employer's health plan, to provide the contested coverage. The college instead can send a letter to the government, the court said.
If the applicant informs the HHS secretary "in writing that it is a nonprofit organization that holds itself out as religious and has religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services, the respondents are enjoined from enforcement against the applicant the challenged provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and related regulations pending final disposition of appellate review."
The EBSA form is an accommodation the Obama administration put in place for religious employers who are not exempt from the HHS mandate. But Wheaton College and many other religious employers -- including Catholic institutions -- that have sued over the mandate argue that even filling out the form to direct a third party to take care of the coverage makes them complicit in providing coverage they find objectionable.
"The circuit courts have divided on whether to enjoin the requirement that religious nonprofit organizations use EBSA Form 700," the Supreme Court said in its July 3 order. "Nothing in this interim order affects the ability of the applicant's employees and students to obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives." The court also said it "should not be construed as an expression of the court's views on the merits" of the case.
The order on Wheaton College is similar to an injunction granted earlier this year to the Little Sisters of the Poor. On Jan. 24, the high court issued a three-sentence order affirming -- for the time being -- an injunction blocking enforcement of the mandate against the religious order, which runs housing for the elderly poor. The Jan. 24 order affirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor's Dec. 31 order.
Regarding the July 3 opinion, Sotomayor -- joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan -- issued a sharply worded dissent.
She said this injunction "risks depriving hundreds of Wheaton's employees and students of their legal entitlement to contraceptive coverage. ... I do not doubt Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one's religious beliefs are substantially burdened -- no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be -- does not make it so."
Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, called the court's order "a wise decision."
"On the eve of Independence Day, we are grateful to God that the Supreme Court has made a wise decision in protecting our religious liberty -- at least until we have an opportunity to make our full case in court," he said in a statement. "We continue to believe that a college community that affirms the sanctity of human life from conception to the grave should not be coerced by the government into facilitating the provision of abortion-inducing drugs."
In other court action on challenges to the mandate, the Catholic Benefits Association was granted a temporary restraining order against its enforcement for 156 Catholic employers and more than 1,090 parishes that joined the association after June 4.
The association was formed last October with 450 Catholic employer members and 2,000 parish members. Among the members are eight archdioceses, 15 dioceses, religious orders, local Catholic Charities affiliates, colleges, nursing homes, cemeteries, retreat centers and medical facilities. The organization filed a class-action lawsuit in March against the mandate on religious freedom grounds, and on June 4 a federal district court in Oklahoma issued an injunction in favor of the group.
After that decision, more employers and parishes joined the association, so a second lawsuit was filed July 1 seeking a temporary restraining order for them. After an emergency hearing, it was granted by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.