Pa. college objects to ‘shutdown’ lawsuit delay

PITTSBURGH (AP) — U.S. Justice Department attorneys have asked a federal judge to delay a Christian college’s lawsuit challenging some federal health care reform mandates because the attorneys say they’re not allowed to work on the case during the partial federal government shutdown.

But attorneys for Geneva College argued in a response, also filed Wednesday, that a delay is unfair unless the government also delays the reforms from taking effect Jan. 1. School officials contend the reforms would force Geneva to provide employee health insurance that covers forms of birth control it finds objectionable.

Geneva College doesn’t want to cover birth control like the morning-after and week-after pills and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, because school officials contend such products violate its moral opposition to abortion.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti did not immediately rule or schedule a hearing on the government’s request.

The judge in June issued an injunction allowing the school based in Beaver Falls, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, to temporarily exclude coverage for the birth control methods at issue in an insurance plan offered to students. The school requires students to prove they have insurance, otherwise they’re covered by a plan paid for by the school.

Conti’s earlier ruling didn’t address Geneva’s employee health plan, because the reforms championed by President Barack Obama don’t require employee plans to cover the types of birth control objected to until Jan. 1.

Geneva’s lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian civil rights group, and is similar to more than 50 lawsuits filed in federal courts across the country by religious-affiliated agencies or faith-based groups.

Justice Department attorneys argued they can’t defend against the lawsuit during the shutdown because the “attorneys and employees of the federal government are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances.”

Geneva’s attorneys don’t object to a stay of the lawsuit — which would delay all filing and other deadlines while some funding is shut off to the Justice Department — provided the Jan. 1 deadline is also extended the same number of days. For example, if the shutdown lasts 14 days, Geneva’s attorneys want the judge to order the health insurance mandates not to apply to the school until Jan. 15.

But Geneva’s attorneys argued that unless the Jan. 1 deadline is extended, the Justice Department gets to avoid defending the mandate in court but “leave in place the mandate itself and deprive plaintiffs of any recourse to protect their rights.”

Among other things, Geneva’s attorneys said they may ask Conti for an injunction freeing the school from the employee insurance mandate, while the lawsuit is pending.

Conti had previously dismissed the lawsuit, which was filed last year, after agreeing with the Justice Department that the school wasn’t suffering immediate harm. That’s because federal officials had promised the regulations would be changed to exempt religious institutions from parts of the law they found morally objectionable.

The judge reinstated much of the lawsuit in her June ruling, after the school argued that the exemptions didn’t materialize and that it had to decide by Aug. 1 whether to drop its student health insurance plan.

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