By Bob Allen
The Southern Baptist Convention agency that provides insurance for denominational employees filed a lawsuit Oct. 11 claiming the Affordable Care Act violates the religious liberty of faith-based organizations that do not meet the government’s narrow definition of “religious employers” exempted from paying for birth-control coverage that violates articles of their faith.
GuideStone Financial Services filed the anticipated lawsuit in the federal district court in Oklahoma City as a class action alongside Truett-McConnell College in Georgia and Reaching Souls International in Oklahoma City, two of approximately 100 ministries that rely on GuideStone for health care but do not qualify for a conscience clause that allows churches and their “integrated auxiliaries” to opt out of the contraceptive mandate.
The lawsuit, filed on the plaintiffs’ behalf by the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, is one of more than 70 legal challenges to a Department of Health and Human Services requirement that companies with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance coverage for birth control.
Like the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby, who filed one high-profile case, GuideStone doesn’t oppose birth control in general but objects to four of 20 FDA-approved methods that they believe induce abortions.
“Our plans have strict prohibitions against the coverage of any of these abortifacients that are out there,” GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins told members of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee Sept. 16. “And yet, [the Obama administration] wants to tell us that we not only have to provide [abortifacients], but without cost to anybody that wants them.”
“But the truth is, we’re not going to do it,” Hawkins said in comments quoted by Baptist Press. “We’re in a fight.”
Recognizing religious-liberty tensions in the measure known as Obamacare passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in March 2010, the White House carved out an exemption for churches and their integrated auxiliaries whose purpose is to inculcate faith and hire primarily people of their own faith tradition.
That excludes religious employers that hire and serve persons outside their faith, such as hospitals and Christian colleges. Baptist schools including East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and Louisiana College filed previous lawsuits challenging the distinction.
“We teach our students what it means to think biblically about all areas of life,” said Emir Caner, president of Truett-McConnell, a Georgia Baptist Convention agency in Cleveland, Ga. “We can’t tell them that human life is sacred from the time of conception and then turn around and offer health benefits that are inextricably linked to providing abortion-causing drugs.”
“Southern Baptists have a long history of standing up to government coercion in matters of conscience,” Caner said. “It’s a tradition we’re honored to join.”
After receiving comments pro and con about the HHS guidelines, the White House added an accommodation for religious nonprofit employers that object to paying for contraceptive services directly to make them available through a third-party provider.
GuideStone says that still requires it to contract, arrange, facilitate and possibly pay for morning-after birth control pills, intrauterine devices and related education and counseling that “would impinge on the sincerely held beliefs that GuideStone shares with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, passed resolutions opposing abortion in 1982, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1994 and 2000. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message promotes the sanctity of human life “from conception to natural death.”
GuideStone says if the courts do not issue an injunction blocking enforcement, the agency will be left with three possible courses of action. The first is to refuse to comply, making them subject to fines. The second is to violate their conscience and go with a third-party administrator.
The third option is to limit coverage only to religious employers that are exempt from the coverage mandate.
“This would force GuideStone to stop a large part of its religious exercise, and would be counter to its ministry assignment from the Southern Baptist Convention to make available health coverage to those employers that share common bonds and convictions with the Southern Baptist Convention,” the lawsuit claims.
“The very purpose of the GuideStone plan is to provide ministry organizations with employee health benefits according to biblical principles,” Hawkins said in a press release. “The government shouldn’t prohibit us from continuing in that ministry.”
Started in 1918 with a nearly $1 million gift by Standard Oil Company founder John D. Rockefeller to provide financial relief to aging ministers and their widows, GuideStone began offering insurance coverage in 1964. Today it carries one of the largest “multiple employer” church health care plans in the country, serving hundreds of churches, denominational entities and other ministry organizations and more than 78,000 participants.
It also manages retirement plans and other financial services such as Christian-based and socially screened mutual funds. Unlike most SBC agencies, GuideStone receives no funds through the Cooperative Program unified budget but is supported by fees and the growth of its investments.
Formerly known as the SBC Annuity Board, at the end of 2011 GuideStone managed $9.6 billion in assets.