Religious Groups Look to Federal Court to Topple Health Care Policy on Birth Control

February 23, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Social conservatives, led, in part, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, continuing to grumble about the Obama administration’s health care policy that requires health insurance companies to provide contraceptives to women, even those employed by companies with religious affiliations, are now looking to the federal courts to overturn the policy.

The Becket Fund, a Religious Right legal outfit, sued the administration in federal court earlier this week arguing that the policy, a part of the Affordable Care Act, violates the religious liberty rights of Ave Maria University in Florida. Ave Maria, a Catholic institution, states that it “pledges faithfulness to the teachings of the Church,” and is “known for its exceptional academics, faithfulness to the magisterium of the Catholic Church ….”

In a press statement announcing the lawsuit, Jim Towey, the university’s president, and former head of President George W. Bush’s faith-based office, claimed the “federal government has no right to coerce the University into funding contraceptives services that include abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, in the health plan we offer our employees.”

Towey further declares that under the administration’s health care policy Ave Maria would be required to pay for contraceptives, and therefore is “prepared to discontinue our health plan and pay the $2,000 per employee, per year fine rather than comply with an unjust, immoral mandate in violation of our rights of conscience.”

In the same statement, the Becket Fund’s Kyle Duncan asserts that the health care policy forces the religious school to either betray its beliefs or dump employees’ health benefits.

But as TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports, the religious groups’ lawsuit is wobbly. As noted on this blog, the rule on contraceptives, which the administration altered to require insurance providers to pay for the contraceptives, not the religiously affiliated groups, is one of general applicability. The Supreme Court has ruled that laws of general applicability that may impact religious practices do not always arise to a First Amendment violation.

Adam Winkler, a UCLA constitutional law professor, told TPM that the administration’s policy is on strong constitutional grounds. “This lawsuit is inspired by politics and nothing more,” Winkler said. “Even under the previously announced rule there was little chance of success.”