Federal Judge Dismisses Wheaton College's Contraceptive Coverage Lawsuit
September 4, 2012 — A federal judge has dismissed an evangelical university's lawsuit against the federal contraceptive coverage rules because the school does not face an immediate threat of having to offer the coverage, UPI reports (UPI, 8/28).
The suit is the third challenge to the contraceptive coverage rules to be dismissed in recent weeks. The other suits included one from Belmont Abbey College -- a Catholic university in North Carolina -- and another filed by several states and Catholic groups (Inside Higher Ed, 8/28).
In the latest case, Wheaton College in Illinois alleged that because it believes emergency contraception is the equivalent of an abortion, abiding by the contraceptive coverage rules would violate its religious freedom. The rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most employers to cover contraceptive services without copayments or deductibles.
In February, the Obama administration announced that religiously affiliated employers that object to covering contraceptives -- such as some Christian universities -- will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide no-cost coverage directly to women. Religiously affiliated entities will have a one-year "safe harbor" period before the policy is enforced.
In a request for a preliminary injunction that was filed on Aug. 1, Wheaton argued that it is not eligible for the one-year delay because its plan covers other prescription contraceptives and it unintentionally covered EC for a period. Department of Justice attorneys countered that the school is indeed eligible (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/13).
Details of Dismissal
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that Wheaton's suit was premature because the college will have until August 2013 to meet the requirement. Huvelle noted that the Obama administration has said it will continue to consider accommodations for religiously affiliated institutions before the rules take effect (Brachear, Chicago Tribune, 8/27).
"Wheaton only tilts at windmills when it protests that it will not be satisfied with whatever amendments defendants ultimately make," Huvelle wrote. She added, "Wheaton's argument that various hypothetical accommodations are insufficient only serves to underscore why this Court ought not address the merits of Wheaton's claims until the preventive services regulations 'have taken on fixed and final shape so that (the Court) can see what legal issues it is deciding'" (Kingkade, Huffington Post, 8/28).
In a statement released by Wheaton, Kyle Duncan, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the court should not trust the government's pledge to revise the rules.
"The dismissal fails to recognize that the new safe harbor still leaves Wheaton in violation of federal law, and therefore vulnerable to lawsuits authorized by [the ACA] to enforce the mandate," Duncan said. He added, "For that reason, Wheaton is considering its options for an appeal" (Chicago Tribune, 8/27).