Wednesday, 05 September 2012 13:59
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In direct response to a lawsuit challenging the HHS mandate brought by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on behalf of Wheaton College, the federal government has rewritten its one-year “safe harbor” to include Wheaton and other religious institutions, giving them an additional year before being forced to comply with the mandate or face crippling fines.
According to a news release from the Becket Fund, as a result of the government’s concession on Friday, Aug. 24, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed Wheaton College’s lawsuit as premature.
The government has stated that it will create a new “insurer” mandate during that safe harbor period which would purportedly solve the religious liberty problem.
Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund, said the government has now re-written the safe harbor guidelines three times in seven months and added that the government is evidently in no hurry to defend the HHS mandate in open court.
“By moving the goalposts yet again, the government managed to get Wheaton’s lawsuit dismissed on purely technical grounds,” he said. “This leaves unresolved the question of religious liberty at the heart of the lawsuit.”
Emily Hardman, communications director for the Becket Fund, said the safe harbor already applied to the other religious organizations who are a part of the lawsuit. The Department of Justice rewrote the safe harbor to include Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant institution.
That doesn’t change anything for EWTN and the others involved in the lawsuit, she said.
“We have a number of cases that are still going forward,” Hardman said. “Even though they qualify for the one-year safe harbor, we at the Becket Fund feel like their rights are being violated. Telling someone that they have one year to get over their consciences doesn’t exactly comport with the First Amendment.”
Nonetheless, the new safe harbor guidelines are a victory for Wheaton College. Before the lawsuit, the government could have enforced the HHS mandate against Wheaton regardless of its religious objections to providing coverage for abortion-inducing drugs. As a direct result of Wheaton’s lawsuit, the college now has some protection for its faith and its employees’ health insurance – albeit only for one year and only against government enforcement of the mandate.
According to the Becket Fund, despite qualifying for the safe harbor, not complying with the mandate during that safe harbor period technically places the college in violation of federal law, and thus exposed to lawsuits authorized by the Affordable Care Act to enforce the HHS mandate. Wheaton therefore is considering an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The government has already lost the religious liberty argument over the mandate once – when a federal court in Colorado issued an injunction against the mandate in favor of a Catholic business owner – and the government appears to be in no hurry to defend the mandate in open court again.
In addition to EWTN and Wheaton College, The Becket Fund represents Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, and Ave Maria University. There are now 24 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate.