PITTSBURGH (AP) — A western Pennsylvania Christian college can temporarily exclude coverage for birth control like the morning-after pill and the week-after pill when it offers a health insurance plan to its employees, a federal judge ruled.
The ruling Monday echoes an earlier finding, also by U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, that Geneva College in Beaver Falls can also exclude such coverage in a health plan it offers to students.
The preliminary injunctions remain in effect until the judge rules on the school’s underlying lawsuit challenging looming federal health care reforms, or until a higher appeals court rules on the issue.
Conti’s 30-page memorandum opinion indicates she expects the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the underlying religious freedom issues next year, now that it has agreed to hear two similar cases, including one filed by Hobby Lobby. The Oklahoma City-based arts and craft chain has argued the contraceptive mandates of the Affordable Care Act violate the beliefs of the “biblically founded business.”
Geneva, a school about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh that is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, argues certain types of birth control violate its religious beliefs against abortion.
“The court has done the right thing in suspending the Obamacare abortion pill mandate for Geneva’s employee health plan while this case moves forward,” said Gregory Baylor, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian civil rights group that is representing the school. “The government should not punish people of faith for making decisions consistent with that faith.”
Geneva’s lawsuit is similar to more than 50 others filed in federal courts across the country by religious-affiliated agencies or faith-based groups.
A Justice Department spokeswoman and its lead attorney on the case did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment on the latest ruling.
But government attorneys had argued in court papers that Geneva had to do little to exempt itself from the law.
Although the law specifically exempts churches from any mandates they find objectionable, it allows an “accommodation” that lets schools like Geneva tell their insurance carrier that they don’t wish to provide such coverage, a process known as “self-certification.” The insurance company must then provide the coverage for free, and seek reimbursement from the federal government.
Justice Department attorneys argued that imposes no more burden than the school had before the health care reforms, but Conti disagreed.
Among other things, when Geneva objected to the coverage before the mandate, its employees would not receive the coverage. Under the new federal mandate, the school’s objection is a formality that clears the way for those employees to receive the coverage anyway. And if the school drops its health care coverage to avoid the controversy, it faces fines, not to mention damage to its ability to recruit and retain employees, the judge found.