WASHINGTON -- North Carolina’s Belmont Abbey College is trying to resurrect a religious school charge against the Obama administration’s signature health care law.
But first, the school and its many allies must prove their time has come.
On Friday, in a cutting-edge case, attorneys for Belmont Abbey and Illinois-based Wheaton College will try to convince a key appellate court that their challenge to the law’s contraception coverage mandate is not premature. If the colleges prevail, they will be poised for a head-on religious liberty showdown.
“It’s incredibly significant,” Emily Hardman, communications director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in an interview Tuesday. “If people’s rights are being violated, if there’s an actual injury happening, they should have their case heard in court.”
The oral argument Friday before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will focus on seemingly technical points called “ripeness” and “standing.” Both sound more boring than the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, but both are crucial.
If a lawsuit isn’t ripe, and if an aggrieved party lacks standing, a lawsuit dies, regardless of the merits.
A Catholic college founded by Benedictine monks about 15 miles west of Charlotte, N.C., Belmont Abbey is challenging a Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provision concerning contraception coverage. The provision requires employers’ group health insurance plans to pay in full for all government-approved contraceptive services sought by plan participants, including sterilization, emergency oral contraception and counseling.
Even with some regulatory flexibility offered by the Obama administration, Belmont Abbey officials say the mandate violates their school’s “pro-life” religious principles.
“If they wish to continue offering employee health insurance without violating their religious beliefs, they must do so in violation of federal law and under threat of severe fines, penalties and private lawsuits,” Becket Fund attorneys wrote in an appellate brief.
The issue first arose earlier this year when Catholic leaders, who say contraception violates moral law, and the White House quarreled over the provision. The government subsequently offered a compromise granting women free contraceptive coverage no matter where they work, putting the costs onus on insurance companies. But arguments similar to Belmont Abbey’s have been raised in other lawsuits filed by the Becket Fund, acting pro bono on behalf of schools, including East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University and Michigan’s Ave Maria University. The Becket Fund, moreover, is not alone in taking on the law that opponents call Obamacare.
All told, some 41 lawsuits challenging the contraception mandate have been filed nationwide by employers, ranging from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami to the University of Notre Dame.
But despite the impressive legal barrage, each lawsuit must first make it through the courthouse door. Judges are supposed to deal with real conflicts and actual or imminent harm. They avoid speculation.
“Plaintiffs face no imminent threat of enforcement action and . . . their claims are not fit for judicial review,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery stated in a Justice Department legal brief.