PITTSBURGH Geneva College, a Christian school in Beaver Falls, Pa., has become the first nonprofit to receive a preliminary injunction against the contraceptive mandate.
Geneva, affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, objects to providing the federally mandated insurance coverage to employees and students that includes Plan B (the so-called "morning-after" pill) and ella (the "week-after" pill).
U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti originally had dismissed Geneva's lawsuit but then reinstated it in May after the school presented evidence that it was already experiencing the effects of the mandate.
Conti did not explain why she granted the injunction in her June 18 court order, but she wrote in May that the federal government "failed to build sufficient lead time" for schools like Geneva to make plans for the mandate.
Federal judges have dismissed lawsuits from other schools like Wheaton College on the grounds they aren't experiencing immediate harm from the mandate.
Judges likely will decide on the merits of the ongoing lawsuits like Geneva's after the Department of Health and Human Services issues a finalized contraceptive mandate in August.
Conti first dismissed Geneva's suit on the grounds that the federal government hadn't finalized the mandate, and so the college didn't have standing to sue.
Geneva asked the judge to reconsider, presenting evidence that the school was already considering whether to drop its student health plan for the next school year based on its objections to the mandate as it stands. HHS' proposals on changing the mandate haven't given the school any real hope that it can comply without violating its biblical principles.
The school was to notify students by May 13 if it was dropping its insurance plan. Conti agreed the college was already suffering the effects of the mandate and reinstated the lawsuit.
"Geneva is no longer planning for some indefinite event in the future," Conti wrote.
She added, "At this time all plaintiffs like Geneva have to rely on, until a final rule is published, are the existing final rules and the proposed rules. Geneva is potentially without any 'final' guidance (as defendants would define it) until the very day it is expected to have a student health insurance plan in place -- a process that, in reality, can take many months." The judge dismissed some of the counts in Geneva's lawsuit but kept its core allegations.
Several other schools such as Wheaton College and Franciscan University have watched judges dismiss their lawsuits against the mandate on the same grounds Conti used to dismiss Geneva's initially. But Conti noted those schools' insurance plans weren't necessarily under the same time crunch as Geneva's.
The ruling might have little impact on the other Christian colleges unless they can present facts like Geneva did showing that they are also facing immediate decisions on their insurance coverage.
The mandate, part of regulations implementing the 2010 health care reform law, requires nearly all employers to carry insurance plans that cover drugs defined by the federal government as contraceptives, even if they can cause chemical abortions.
Among those state-defined contraceptives are Plan B and other "morning-after" pills, which can prevent implantation of tiny embryos, and "ella," which, in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486, can act even after implantation to end the life of a child. The rule mandates plans to underwrite sterilization for women and related "education and counseling."
The abortion/contraception requirement is the target of more than 60 federal lawsuits and will be implemented for Christian institutions and other nonprofit organizations beginning Aug. 1. It will take effect when each organization's health plan begins a new year. The mandate's start-up date for for-profit organizations was Aug. 1 of 2012.
The abortion/contraception mandate, also known as the HHS mandate because of its issuance by the Department of Health and Human Services, gives those who object to it, according to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, three options, all unacceptable: 1) violate their consciences by obeying it; 2) violate the law, which could produce hefty fines; or 3) stop providing health coverage, which could force workers to purchase insurance with provisions they object to and possibly open the employers up to penalties.
Of the 61 lawsuits that have been filed against the abortion/contraception mandate, 32 are by for-profits. Included are Christian publisher Tyndale House, Christian-owned Hobby Lobby and businesses owned by Catholics, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Courts have granted injunctions to 20 for-profit corporations blocking enforcement of the mandate, but have refused to provide such relief to Hobby Lobby and six others. No action has been taken in five for-profit lawsuits.
Geneva College was the first nonprofit to receive such relief from a court. Courts have dismissed 18 of the nonprofit lawsuits, citing procedural issues.
The Obama administration proposed a rule change in February to address conscience objections to the abortion/contraception mandate. Religious liberty advocates said it appears to protect churches and church ministries but not religious institutions and individuals.
In a letter to Congress June 21, ERLC President Russell D. Moore urged passage of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, which amends the health care reform law to protect Americans from having to purchase or provide insurance that includes coverage of abortion or another service to which they object on "moral or religious" grounds.
It also bars discrimination by the government against health care workers or institutions refusing to participate in abortions.