The Obama administration’s attempt last summer to find a new way to give religious non-profit groups an exemption from the new health care law’s mandate for birth-control services did not go far enough, a federal judge in Florida decided in a temporary ruling on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge James S. Moody, Jr., of Fort Myers blocked enforcement of the rules against a Roman Catholic college, Ave Maria University, until a court trial on the dispute.
The release of the government’s new rules on August 22, and their challenge by the Florida college located in the town of Ave Maria near Naples, followed the Supreme Court’s ruling in July in a case involving another religious college, Wheaton College in Illinois. The Justices spared non-profits from having to send in a formal document to claim the exemption from the contraceptives mandate. (The Wheaton College case arose after the Supreme Court, in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, gave closely held religious corporations, operating as for-profit businesses, an exemption from the contraceptive mandate.)
In the follow-up rules issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, non-profit religious organizations were told that they need only notify HHS in writing that they were claiming a religious exemption. But the rules went a bit further — and this is what led to Ave Maria’s challenge — and also required the organization to tell the government what its health coverage plan for its employees was by name and type, and to provide contact information to the insurer operating the plan.
The added information was designed to enable HHS to then take the initiative to arrange for the religious organization’s female employees to have contraceptive coverage at no cost, and with no cost to the organization itself.
Ave Maria University sent HHS a written notice that it was a religious organization and that it was claiming the exemption, but it did not include any information about the insurer of its employee health plan, did not provide information for contacting the insurer, and did not name its plan or identify its type.
Organizations like Ave Maria University have contended that it would violate their religions to do anything to implement the birth-control mandate to which they object for religious reasons, beyond simply claiming the exemption — period. Ave Maria sued HHS in federal court in Fort Myers, seeking to block any requirement that it do anything more than that.
Ave Maria was required to notify the government about its objections by next Saturday, when its health plan for employees is to be renewed.
With time that short, and applying a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit blocking enforcement of an earlier version of the mandate for a different non-profit group, Judge Moody said he saw too little difference between the two situations to justify enforcing the new version against Ave Maria University.
His order will remain in effect while the Catholic college’s challenge goes to trial in his court. His order was in the form of a preliminary injunction, which HHS would have the option of challenging on an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.