WASHINGTON (BNG)—The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals from religious nonprofits—including East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and the Southern Baptist Convention’s insurance provider—challenging required coverage of contraceptives under Obamacare, including drugs they believe cause abortions.
The high court combined seven cases to resolve whether an accommodation written by the Obama administration allowing institutions like religious hospitals and universities to opt out of the contraceptive mandate significantly burdens their religious freedom.
It will be the fourth time for the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act. It is the second challenging a rule set by the Health and Human Services Department that employee health insurance plans must cover preventive care, including a full range of birth-control options for women.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision the government could not compel the closely held corporation Hobby Lobby to provide “Plan B” or “emergency” contraceptives because of the religious belief of its owners, who are Southern Baptists, that life begins at the moment of conception.
Recognizing the separation of church and state, the White House exempted religious organizations including churches and their integrated auxiliaries, which primarily serve church members and exist for propagation of the faith.
The definition of religious institutions did not include faith-based charities like schools and hospitals that are open to the general public and employ people from various faiths. After receiving feedback, the administration added a provision allowing employees of such organizations to receive the mandated coverage without their employer footing the bill.
Numerous religious organizations, including GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention, filed lawsuits claiming the requirement of letting the government know in writing they were opting out made them complicit in providing methods of birth control they believe are morally equivalent to abortion.
When a religious employer opts out of contraceptive coverage, responsibility shifts to the organization’s insurance provider to pay for coverage of birth control at no cost to the worker. Religious employers that object to the policy insist the opt-out letter becomes a “triggering mechanism” that involves them in actions that violate their conscience.
Seven federal appeals courts have rejected that argument, reasoning the act of submitting an opt-out form relieves, rather than imposes, any substantial burden on religious exercise. In September, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in St. Louis differed, finding the opt-out provision violates the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and increasing likelihood the matter would eventually make it to the Supreme Court.
‘Grateful’ for a hearing
“We are thankful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear these cases,” said O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Services, a party in one of the consolidated cases. “We look forward to the opportunity to present our case and are praying that the justices will recognize and once again protect the religious liberty of ministry organizations to operate their benefit plans in accordance with their beliefs.”
GuideStone and its co-plaintiffs, Truett-McConnell College and Reaching Souls International, won the first class-action suit against the HHS mandate in October 2013. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision in July, finding federal law, and not the opt-out act of “self certification,” is the mechanism that “triggers” contraceptive coverage. The 10th Circuit agreed to leave in place a preliminary injunction prohibiting the government from levying fines against the plaintiffs until the appeal is decided by the Supreme Court.
Another case involves East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University, two schools affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. A federal judge in Texas ruled in December 2013 that Obamacare violated the schools’ religious liberty, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision in June.
Oklahoma Baptist University, which provides health insurance coverage for both employees and students, joined three other Christian institutions of higher learning in a September 2013 lawsuit challenging the contraceptive mandate. A district court in Oklahoma sided with the schools in December 2013, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in the same July 14, 2015, opinion that went against Guidestone.
Oral arguments in March 2016
The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the combined cases in March, with a decision likely in June, right in the middle of a presidential campaign.
“It is sad that we have had to spend so much of the last several years fighting for the most basic of religious liberty protections, but the Supreme Court has the opportunity to defend the consciences of millions of Americans in what is sure to be a crucial case in the preservation of religious liberty,” commented Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“A government that can violate the consciences of some can easily attempt to violate the conscience of anyone. My prayer is that the Supreme Court will intervene in this administration’s cavalier disregard for soul freedom that forces a decision between obedience to God and compliance with a regulatory state.”