Federal judge rejects contraception suit filed by 7 states
(Associated Press Wire Report, July 18, 2012)
LINCOLN, Neb. — Seven attorneys general trying to block the federal health-care law’s requirement for contraception coverage saw their lawsuit dismissed yesterday by a federal judge who said they didn’t have standing to file it.
U.S. District Judge Warren K. Urbom ruled that the states failed to prove they would suffer immediate harm once that part of the law is enacted. The Nebraska-based federal judge also noted that President Barack Obama’s administration had agreed to work with religious groups to try to address their concerns.
The lawsuit was challenging a rule in the law that requires contraception coverage in health-care plans — including for employees of church-affiliated hospitals, schools and outreach programs. The suit argued that the rule violated the rights of employers who object to the use of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
The lawsuit was filed by Republican attorneys general from Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Plaintiffs also included three Nebraska-based employers affiliated with the Catholic Church, a nun and a missionary.
“Today’s decision completely disregards the federal government’s continued shell game when it comes to this rule,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who was leading the case, said in a statement. “Essentially, this decision asks millions of Americans to watch and wait for their religious liberties to be violated.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he planned to talk to his colleagues in other states about an appeal.
“This was not a ruling on whether the religious mandate is a violation of the First Amendment, but merely a decision on whether the plaintiffs can file a lawsuit at this time,” he said in a statement. “The violations need to be heard and the federal government held accountable.”
The U.S. Justice Department had urged the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Nebraska, argued that the rule would effectively force religious employers and organizations to drop health insurance coverage, which would raise enrollment in state Medicaid programs and increase patient numbers at state-subsidized hospitals and medical centers.
In his ruling, Urbom said that argument was “based on layers of conjecture” and failed to show that the rule would strain state budgets.
Urbom said Catholic groups that joined the lawsuit failed to show that a religious exemption written into the rule wouldn’t apply to them. He also noted that Obama’s administration had agreed to work with religious groups.
“In short, the individual plaintiffs have not shown that their current health plans will be required to cover contraception-related services under the Rule, and therefore their claims must be dismissed,” Urbom wrote.
Some legal experts have said that even though the nation’s highest court largely upheld the health-care law, the lawsuit focused on a separate issue and stood a decent chance.
Obama’s administration, in response to the criticism from religious groups, delayed enforcement of the provision until next summer and has said it would shift the requirement from employers to health insurers. White House officials have said they didn’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedom, but wanted to give women access to important preventive care.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott echoed the sentiments of the other attorneys general in a statement last night, saying the ruling didn’t address the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s “misguided attempt to impose its contraceptives mandate on private citizens and faith-based organizations.”
In summary, although the Rule that lies at the heart of the plaintiffs’ complaint establishes a definitive, final definition of “religious employer,” the ACA’s contraceptive coverage requirements are not being enforced against non-exempted religious organizations, and the Rule is currently undergoing a process of amendment to accommodate these organizations. The plaintiffs face no direct and immediate harm, and one can only speculate whether the plaintiffs will ever feel any effects from the Rule when the temporary enforcement safe harbor terminates. This case clearly involves “contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all,” Missouri Roundtable for Life v. Carnahan, 676 F.3d 665, 674 (8th Cir. 2012)
Second HHS Mandate Lawsuit Dismissed on 'Technical Grounds'
(Catholic News Agency, July 21, 2012)
Washington D.C. — A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has dismissed a lawsuit by Belmont Abbey College against the federal contraception mandate as being premature.
Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which was representing Belmont Abbey College in the case, said that the decision was made “on technical grounds.”
Smith explained in a statement that “the judge thinks that the case should be delayed for a matter of months” in order to give the federal government time to “fix” the mandate.
On July 18, federal judge James E. Boasberg dismissed the suit filed by the Catholic liberal arts school last year. The suit is the second of the nearly two dozen cases against the mandate to be thrown out.
The judge determined that the case was not yet “ripe for decision” because the concerns were still too “speculative.”
He noted that the federal government has indicated that it intends to issue future rules on the implementation of the mandate being challenged in the case.
That mandate — issued under the authority of the Affordable Care Act — will soon require employers and colleges to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their firmly-held religious convictions.
Belmont Abbey filed a lawsuit arguing that the mandate violated its religious freedom last November, becoming the first group to do so. Dozens of other organizations followed in the college’s footsteps over the months that followed.
In total, 23 lawsuits have been filed by more than 50 plaintiffs, including schools, charitable agencies, states, dioceses and private business owners.
On July 17, a judge in Nebraska dismissed another of the lawsuits, similarly ruling that it was not clear that the plaintiffs would suffer immediate harm from the mandate.
In both decisions, the judges pointed to the administration’s promise to “accommodate” the religious freedom concerns of objecting groups.
However, critics have voiced concern about whether the “accommodation” will be sufficient. They have noted that the mandate was finalized in law months ago, but the accommodation has merely been promised and not placed in law or even formally proposed.
Smith emphasized that this ruling “says nothing about the merits of Belmont Abbey’s religious freedom claims, and has no effect on any of the 22 other cases currently pending in federal court.”
“It simply delays Belmont Abbey College’s ability to challenge the Mandate for a few months,” she said.
Smith stressed that “the court made clear we have the right to re-file the case” if concerns with the mandate are not adequately addressed.
While she said that the group is currently “considering our options,” Smith made it clear that the battle for religious freedom was not over.
“Belmont Abbey College and the Becket Fund will continue the fight for religious liberty, even if this case is delayed for a few months,” she said.