Feds ask for delay in Belmont Abbey College's lawsuit against HHS mandate
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., representing Belmont Abbey College in its lawsuit with the federal government over the HHS contraception mandate, said Feb. 17 that the government had asked for a delay to the lawsuit in federal district court.
Days after saying the birth control mandate was "final," the Obama administration told a federal court Feb. 16 that it shouldn't rule on a lawsuit against the new rule because the administration may decide to change it at an unspecified later date, reported LifeSiteNews.com on Friday.
Pictured: Abbot Placid Solari, chancellor of Belmont Abbey College, and Dr. William Thierfelder, president, talk to reporters and students during a press conference Nov. 18, 2011, announcing their lawsuit against the U.S. government over the new health reform law's requirement that all employers provide contraception and sterilization services. (Patricia L. Guilfoyle, Catholic News Herald)
The lawsuit and two similar lawsuits by Colorado Christian University and EWTN are efforts to combat in court the new mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that nearly all employers -- including religious organizations morally opposed to artificial contraception -- must provide free birth control pills, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization services in their health care plans starting in 2013 or 2014.
On Feb. 16, the Obama administration filed its first legal response to Belmont Abbey College's lawsuit challenging the controversial contraception mandate. This was its first opportunity for the administration to explain to the court why the mandate is not illegal and unconstitutional.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Belmont Abbey College in the case, said Feb. 17 that the administration's response lacked any constitutional defense of the mandate.
"Apparently, the administration has decided that the mandate, as written and finalized, is constitutionally indefensible," said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund. "Its only hope is to ask the court to look the other way based on an empty promise to possibly change the rules in the future."
"Promises, promises. The Administration is taking the remarkable position that announcing future plans at a press conference means the courts should ignore what the law on the books actually says," Smith added in a written release Feb. 17. "Since when does 'Trust me, I'm from the government' suspend the laws of the land?"
On Feb. 10, the Becket Fund said that it was proceeding with the Belmont Abbey College case despite a partial compromise on the HHS contraception mandate announced by President Barack Obama earlier that day.
When the HHS rule was announced Jan. 20, the Becket Fund issued a response to the government's decision to move ahead with the mandate despite strong religious objections from many including the U.S. bishops.
"This is a shameless attempt to kick the can down the road in an election year," said Smith. "Religious colleges, universities, and hospitals will never pay for abortion drugs in violation of their religious beliefs – this year or any other year."
Belmont Abbey College filed suit last November against the Obama Administration, protesting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' rule requiring all employers to provide free contraception and sterilization coverage in their health insurance plans violates the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment. The contraception mandate includes drugs such as "plan B" and "ella," considered to be abortifacients.
The Catholic Church teaches that contraception, abortifacients and sterilization are intrinsically evil.
As a Catholic liberal arts college, Belmont Abbey College and its Benedictine monks said they object to being forced by the federal government to pay for such services in violation of Church teaching and their beliefs.
In her Jan. 20 announcement, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius said religious employers would be given another year to implement the contraception coverage mandate.
"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," Sibelius said.
In response, the Becket Fund's Smith said, "How generous of her to give religious organizations one more year to comply with this coercive action," adding that no amount of time would change the fact that religious employers who oppose the contraception mandate will not change their religious beliefs.
Smith said the government has until Jan. 31 to respond to Belmont Abbey College's lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. At this point, she said, they are proceeding with the lawsuit and hoping that legal action can quell the contraception mandate before it goes into effect in 2013.
Religious employers such as Belmont Abbey College and the Diocese of Charlotte may request an exemption to the HHS contraception mandate, but they must meet specific criteria to receive the exemption, including serving primarily Catholics in their social service ministries and programs, enrolling primarily Catholic students in their schools, and hiring primarily Catholic employees.
The U.S. bishops, including Charlotte Bishop Peter Jugis, and Belmont Abbey College have said that these criteria are too narrowly drawn and would force the shut-down or curtailing of many vital social services, hospitals, schools, and more that are run by Catholic institutions.
— Catholic News Herald
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