WASHINGTON — A lawsuit filed by the University of Notre Dame to challenge the federal contraception mandate has been rejected as premature due to the government’s promise to amend the regulation.
“Notre Dame’s claims aren’t ripe, and they don’t have standing to bring them,” ruled district Judge Robert Miller Jr. on Dec. 31.
Pointing to the government’s promise to change the mandate for objecting religious employers, Miller dismissed the case, saying that “Notre Dame faces no penalty or restriction based on the existing regulatory requirement.”
The ruling does not prevent the university from bringing a lawsuit against the government again once the mandate is revised if it believes that its religious freedom is still in jeopardy.
Notre Dame is one of more than 100 plaintiffs that have filed legal challenges against a federal mandate issued by the Obama administration to require employers to provide health insurance covering contraception, including some drugs that can cause early abortions, and sterilization.
The mandate includes only a narrow exemption for nonprofit religious organizations that exist to inculcate religious values and both employ and serve primarily members of their own faith.
Faced with widespread protests from non-exempt organizations, the government announced a one-year “safe harbor” to delay the implementation of the mandate against religious employers while an “accommodation” for their religious freedom was devised.
However, the government has not yet issued its formal proposal with details for the new rule, and critics argue that the administration’s early suggestions do not adequately protect the constitutional right to religious liberty.
Dozens of lawsuits are now asking courts across America to grant injunctions temporarily blocking the enforcement of the mandate against companies that object to it while they argue their cases in court.
Like Notre Dame, several other religiously affiliated organizations have also had their lawsuits dismissed as premature due to the safe-harbor period and promised accommodation.
However, other recent court decisions have offered hope to nonprofit groups.
In December, a federal judge in New York ruled that a lawsuit filed by the local archdiocese was mature despite the government’s promise, observing, “There is no ‘Trust us; changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution.”
Days later, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government must be held responsible for its promise to revise the mandate, which the court deemed a “binding commitment.”
The appellate judges pointed to the government’s statement that it would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the new rule by the end of March 2013 and would publish the "Final Rule" before August 2013.
“We take the government at its word and will hold it to it,” they said, instructing the government to report back every 60 days on the progress of the accommodation.
Religious-freedom advocates have also found hope in suits filed by for-profit companies, which do not qualify for the safe harbor. Of 13 for-profit lawsuits that have received a court decision, 10 have been granted preliminary injunctions.
Notre Dame has not yet announced whether it will appeal the court’s decision.