OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked the government from forcing four Oklahoma religious schools to abide by the federal health care law’s mandate that their insurance coverage include access to the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives.
U.S. District Judge Stephen P. Friot handed down a preliminary injunction on Monday that exempts Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Mid-America University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University from offering the contraceptives while their lawsuit challenging the mandate is pending.
The ruling is the latest decision preventing the government from enforcing the law’s requirement that emergency birth control methods be covered by health insurance policies. On Friday, another federal judge in Oklahoma City granted an injunction preventing enforcement of the requirement on nearly 200 religious organizations.
The ministries’ lawsuit objects to providing four out of 20 Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives, including the morning-after pill and the week-after pill, which they allege may cause early abortions. The religious groups include Reaching Souls International, which trains pastors and cares for orphans in Africa, India and Cuba, and Truett-McConnell College, a Georgia Baptist college.
In July, a temporary exemption from the mandate was granted to Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a ruling the government has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit also challenges the mandate, arguing that it forces the Christian family that owns the arts-and-crafts chain “to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits.”
Monday’s ruling came on the same day that the University of Notre Dame appealed a federal judge’s decision that denied the university an exemption pending its lawsuit. Notre Dame is challenging the law’s requirement that it provide students and employee with health plans that cover birth control, which the Catholic university argues violates its freedom to practice religion without government interference.
As in the previous rulings, the four religious schools maintain that providing insurance coverage for the morning-after pill and similar contraceptives violates the institutions’ religious beliefs.
The schools oppose birth control methods that they allege can cause early abortions by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, such as an intrauterine device or forms of emergency contraception.
Friot states in his ruling that each of the schools “are Christ-centered institutions of higher learning” that believe “it would be sinful and immoral for them to participate in, pay for, facilitate, enable or otherwise support” access to the birth control methods.
“They hold that one of the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments (“thou shalt not murder”) precludes them from facilitating, assisting in, or enabling the use of drugs or devices that they believe destroy very young human beings in the womb,” Friot’s 21-page ruling states. The schools do not oppose providing any of the other mandated products, it says.
The mandate has forced the schools to either provide the coverage they object to or violate the regulations and incur penalties of $100 per day for each affected employee, the decision states.
In his Monday ruling, Friot rejected the government’s contention that it had a compelling interest in requiring coverage of the emergency contraceptives because application of the mandate “is riddled with exceptions.”
“The number of individuals who are covered by exempt health plans has been estimated at more than 50 million, and perhaps as many as 100 million,” the ruling states.
An attorney for the government, Benjamin Berwick, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on Tuesday.