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New challenge to birth control mandate

Lawyers for a religious college in Illinois asked a federal judge in Washington on Wednesday to spare it from having to provide insurance for birth control and abortion for its employees.   Wheaton College, an Evangelical Christian college that takes its name from its home city, has filed a constitutional challenge to government health care rules mandating that employers include coverage of those services in health benefit plans. That requirement took effect on Wednesday, and the college asked for a temporary order against having to obey it.

Wheaton College’s filing told U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle that it is not eligible for any of the exemptions that the Obama Administration has provided for some employers who object on religious grounds to the new “preventive care” mandate ordered by the new health care law.  Because it is opposed as a matter of its faith to abortion, the use of any drugs that might induce abortion, or abortion counseling, the college has argued, the new requirement violates its rights to religious freedom under the Constitution and federal laws.

The Affordable Care Act provides for “preventive care” to protect women’s health, and those ultimately will benefit some 47 million American women, the Department of Health & Human Services said in a report issued Wednesday as specific care requirements took effect across the nation.  The law left it to HHS to spell out which preventive services were actually to be mandated.

In its plea for a court order relieving it at least temporarily of the duty to offer that kind of health coverage for its employees, the college said that most of its 709 full-time employees depend upon health insurance that the institution provides for them and their families.  Over the next five months, the college told Judge Huvelle, it will be negotiating new employee health coverage.  Any major changes in its plans must be known by September 30 at the latest, in order to be ready for enrollment in November, the document said.

“If relief is delayed, Wheaton’s employee insurance coverage might lapse,” it said. “If relief is denied, Wheaton will be forced to choose between its religious beliefs and the prospect of crippling fines, regulatory penalties, and lawsuits, as well as potentially catastrophic disruptions to the health and well-being of its employees and their families.”

It added: “It is a violation of Wheaton’s teachings for it to deliberately provide insurance coverage for, fund, sponsor, underwrite, or otherwise facilitate access to abortion-inducing drugs, abortion procedures, and related services.  Specifically, Wheaton has sincere religious objections to covering the emergency contraceptive drugs popularly known as Plan B and Ella…. Wheaton also has a sincere religious objection to paying for counseling supporting these drugs, since such counseling is also contrary to its religious teachings.”

The federal government presumably will respond to the request before Judge Huvelle acts.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New challenge to birth control mandate, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 1, 2012, 5:18 PM),