Wheaton College, others win one against Obamacare's assault on religious liberty

A win for people of faith the media widely ignores

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit by Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College in their fight to protect their religious liberty against provisions in Obamacare that mandate religious institutions violate their consciences.

The Obama administration had been fighting tooth and nail to have the suit and 40 others like it dismissed, and two federal courts had done so. But in a defeat for the administration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruled that the suit could remain alive at least until the administration revise rules requiring certain religious institutions to provide free insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and certain abortifacients.

The two religious colleges are represented by the D.C-based The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty  Wheaton College is an evangelical school in Chicago's western suburb and Belmont Abbey is a Catholic school near Charlotte, N.C.

As the Becket Fund explained in a news release (copied below)

The court based its decision on two concessions that government lawyers made in open court. First, the government promised “it would never enforce [the mandate] in its current form” against Wheaton, Belmont Abbey or other similarly situated religious groups.  Second, the government promised it would publish a proposed new rule “in the first quarter of 2013” and would finalize it by next August. The administration made both concessions under intense questioning by the appellate judges.  The court deemed the concessions a “binding commitment” and has retained jurisdiction over the case to ensure the government follows through.

That a court would even dismiss this suit is unthinkable, as the right to act in your reasonable religious beliefs is mandated as the first of all rights in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.The Obama administration had argued that the lawsuits are premature because it is revising Obamacare regulations to more clearly define what are "religious institutions." The administration has decided that Catholic hospitals and Catholic social service agencies, for example, are not religious institutions because their "main purpose" is not to inculcate their religious doctrines into the people they serve.

The argument is perfectly ludicrous because those hospitals and agencies are mandated by religious precepts. These are the good works that organized religions do as required by their consciences.

Here is the Beckett Fund's press release:

Washington, D.C. — Today, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. handed Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College a major victory in their challenges to the HHS mandate.  Last summer, two lower courts had dismissed the Colleges’ cases as premature.  Today, the appellate court reinstated those cases, and ordered the Obama Administration to report back every 60 days—starting in mid-February—until the Administration makes good on its promise to issue a new rule that protects the Colleges’ religious freedom.  The new rule must be issued by March 31, 2013.

“The D.C. Circuit has now made it clear that government promises and press conferences are not enough to protect religious freedom,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who argued the case.  “The court is not going to let the government slide by on non-binding promises to fix the problem down the road.”

The court based its decision on two concessions that government lawyers made in open court. First, the government promised “it would never enforce [the mandate] in its current form” against Wheaton, Belmont Abbey or other similarly situated religious groups.  Second, the government promised it would publish a proposed new rule “in the first quarter of 2013” and would finalize it by next August. The administration made both concessions under intense questioning by the appellate judges.  The court deemed the concessions a “binding commitment” and has retained jurisdiction over the case to ensure the government follows through.

“This is a win not just for Belmont Abbey and Wheaton, but for all religious non-profits challenging the mandate,” said Duncan. “The government has now been forced to promise that it will never enforce the current mandate against religious employers like Wheaton and Belmont Abbey and a federal appellate court will hold the government to its word.”

While the government had previously announced plans to create a new rule, it has not yet taken the steps necessary to make that promise legally binding. Lower courts dismissed the colleges’ cases while the government contemplated a new rule, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided the cases should stay alive while it scrutinizes whether the government will meet its promised deadlines. The court acted quickly, issuing Tuesday’s order just days after hearing lengthy arguments.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Additional information:

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Order (December 18, 2012)

Becket Fund’s Appeal Brief (October 5, 2012)

Wheaton College Case Page (Legal Documents, Images, Resources, FAQ’s)

Belmont Abbey College Case Page (Legal Documents, Images, Resources, FAQ’s)

HHS Information Central (all 42 HHS cases, interactive map, resources, legal documents, FAQ’s, and more)


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