Federal Ruling Repeats Call to Revise HHS Mandate

District court judge cites the Obama administration's promise to revise the mandate by March 31 to accommodate religious-freedom concerns.

U.S. district Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
U.S. district Judge Amy Berman Jackson. (photo: Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — A federal judge’s ruling on a D.C.-area challenge to the Health and Human Services' contraception mandate places the burden on the government to address Catholic religious-freedom concerns in a timely manner.

“[W]e are hopeful that this ruling will ensure that Catholic and other religious entities will never be forced to engage in practices that violate our religious beliefs,” said the Archdiocese of Washington, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The archdiocese said on Jan. 25 that, though its lawsuit was dismissed, it is important to note that the dismissal “was not based on the merits of our case.”

Rather, it explained, the ruling “places the onus squarely on the government to fulfill its binding commitment to address the religious-freedom concerns of the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic University of America and several other Catholic entities.”

The Archdiocese of Washington said the decision was based on the government’s commitment to revise the mandate “in a way that addresses our religious-freedom concerns” by March 31.

The contraception mandate — issued by the Department of Health and Human Services — requires employers of more than 50 employees to provide insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-inducing drugs.

At least 44 lawsuits representing 130-plus plaintiffs have been filed against the contraception mandate. Plaintiffs include nonprofit religious organizations and for-profit businesses with religious and moral objections to providing the mandated coverage in their employee health plans. Violators of the mandate face crippling fines.

Although the mandate includes a religious exemption, it applies only to nonprofit organizations that have as their primary purpose the inculcation of “religious values” and that primarily employ and serve members of their own religion.

Many religious institutions have voiced objections to the mandate because it requires them to violate their consciences. In addition, numerous Catholic employers are concerned that they do not qualify for the religious exemption because they do not restrict employment or service to members of their own faith.

In a Jan. 25 ruling, U.S. district Judge Amy Berman Jackson determined that the Archdiocese of Washington’s lawsuit was not “ripe” for consideration.

However, she cited the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Dec. 18 decision that said the Obama administration must be held accountable for its promise to revise the mandate as it applies to objecting religious organizations.

That decision had similarly dismissed a lawsuit from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Wheaton College, a Protestant Christian institution in Illinois. The appeals court dismissed the case on the grounds of ripeness, pointing to the government’s claims during oral arguments that it would “never” enforce the mandate in its current form against religious institutions with moral objections.

Government lawyers said there will be “a different rule for entities like the appellants,” the appeals court said, adding that it takes this claim “as a binding commitment.”

“This court finds no reason why the circuit court’s decision should not apply equally to the facts of this case,” Jackson said. “The court notes that it has construed the government’s representations as a binding commitment, and it would not look favorably upon the government’s failure to comply.”