By Bob Allen
A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction Dec. 20 prohibiting enforcement of the federal health care law known as Obamacare saying the Southern Baptist Convention’s insurance provider has legal standing to challenge mandatory coverage of contraceptives viewed as contrary to the denomination’s articles of faith.
U.S. District Judge Timothy DeGiusti in the Western District of Oklahoma denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed by 187 religious organizations that provide their employees with health benefits through GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention but do not meet the government’s definition of a “religious employer” that is exempt from the contraceptive mandate.
“This ruling reflects common-sense legal principles, respects the rights of religious institutions to provide benefits consistent with their convictions and provides needed relief from the government’s attempt to co-opt ministry health plans,” said GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins. “We appreciate Judge DeGiusti’s timely protection of religious liberty and give thanks to God for this victory and for the many thousands who have made this a matter of prayer.”
Led by Reaching Souls International, a nonprofit corporation founded by a Southern Baptist minister based in Oklahoma City, and Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, the plaintiffs alleged irreparable harm by a provision of the Affordable Care Act, due to take effect Jan. 1, requiring coverage of all birth control methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
They object to just four of the 20 FDA-approved forms of birth control: Plan B One-Step, an over-the-counter medication that helps prevent pregnancy after birth control failure or unprotected sex; Ella, a prescription pill effective up to five days after intercourse; and two intrauterine devices.
The Baptist Faith and Message, Southern Baptists’ official confession of faith, affirms “the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” SBC leaders interpret that to mean that birth control that prevents a pregnancy after fertilization occurs is not contraception but an abortifacient.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 11 by lawyers working with the Washington-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, is similar to a high-profile case involving the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby that the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear in 2014.
While the Hobby Lobby case challenges the coverage mandate, GuideStone’s complaint centers on “accommodation,” a mechanism in the law that allows certain religious employers to avoid the contraceptive mandate by filing a certification form.
The government exempts from the contraceptive mandate employers whose purpose is “the inculcation of religious values” and who primarily employ and serve persons who share their religious tenets. That includes local congregations, associations, conventions and “integrated auxiliaries,” church-related nonprofits funded primarily through church donations.
New rules imposed following a listening period allow other nonprofit religious organizations, like faith-based hospitals and colleges, with religious objections to exclude coverage for some or all contraceptives, but requires them to either provide or arrange for payment of contraceptive services at no cost to plan participants through a third-party administrator.
GuideStone claims guiding its client ministries in that process would cause the agency “to facilitate contraceptive coverage” and “violate sincere religious principles.”
GuideStone’s case centers on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 20-year-old federal law that prohibits the government from “substantially” burdening a person’s religious exercise, unless there is a compelling governmental interest, and that it be done by the least restrictive means possible.
Judge DeGiusti said there is no question that GuideStone’s religious beliefs are sincere and their opposition to the contraceptive mandate is a religious exercise, so their winning the case relies on proving the burden on their religious liberty is “substantial.” The judge said that argument has a high enough “likelihood of success” to warrant the case moving forward.
DeGiusti also said that potential harm done to the plaintiffs by implementing the law Jan. 1 would outweigh any harm to the government’s interest in carrying out the accommodation. He “enjoined and restrained” federal officials from enforcing any action against the plaintiffs, “including any penalties, fines and assessments for noncompliance.”
The Beckett Fund says there are currently 89 lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the contraceptive mandate.