Pennsylvania Christian College Sues Over Birth Control Regs

February 22, 2012

A Christian college in western Pennsylvania has sued the federal government saying regulations that require employers to offer birth control coverage that includes drugs that abort fertilized embryos are “directly at odds with the religious message it wishes to convey,” and that President Barack Obama’s announced compromise on the issue is “fictitious.”

Officials with Geneva College announced Tuesday’s lawsuit at the school in Beaver Falls, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, along with attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, seeks a judge’s ruling that the regulations violate the rights of the college and similar faith-based or church-related groups.

The college also wants an order exempting the school from complying with the “preventive services” or birth control mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The lawsuit contends the law violates the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment as well as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other government regulations.

The contraceptive provision “illegally and unconstitutionally coerces Geneva College to violate the Sixth Commandment under threat of heavy fines and penalties,” the lawsuit said, referring to the biblical injunction “Thou shalt not murder” in the lawsuit. “The mandate also forces the college to fund government-dictated speech that is directly at odds with the religious message it wishes to convey to its students and the broader culture.”

The suit targets the federal departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, which it said crafted the regulations. A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, which has taken the lead in the regulations, said the department doesn’t comment on litigation and referred a reporter to a 23-page document that explains the reasons for the regulations.

The Obama administration has stressed that churches are exempt from the regulations, but has been criticized by some religious and conservative groups that say church-run schools and hospitals, among others, will be forced to violate their principles regarding abortion and contraception — or, at least, certain types of contraception including “ella” and “Plan B,” also known as the morning-after pill, which either abort embryos up to a week after fertilization or prevent fertilization.

“The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion is not violated by a law that is not specifically targeted at religiously motivated conduct and that applies equally to conduct without regard to whether it is religiously motivated – a so-called neutral law of general applicability,” the HHS said in the 23-page document defending the regulations.

The Obama administration has said the regulations are fair and legal because they’re applied across the board to all companies or agencies that employee 50 or more people and don’t target any specific religion or religious practice. The president’s “compromise” — announced the same day the regulations took effect — said religious groups wouldn’t be harmed if insurers are required to make the contraceptives available for “free” to employees.

But Tuesday’s lawsuit contends, “This compromise is not helpful to Geneva College because, among other reasons, it is entirely fictitious. It does not exist in the rule or guidance the Administration made final on February 10, and it need never be formally proposed or adopted, much less adopted unchanged.”

The lawsuit said the school, founded in 1848 by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, would face annual fines of at least $500,000 it dropped its health care plan, which covers employees, and students under certain circumstances.

“The state shouldn’t punish people of faith for making decisions in accordance with their faith,” said Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the ADF, which filed the lawsuit. “Every American should know that a government with the power to do this to anyone can do this — and worse — to everyone.”

The same group filed a similar federal lawsuit in Louisiana on Saturday on behalf of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., also claiming the school’s religious freedoms were violated by the new federal rules requiring contraception coverage.

Republican lawmakers in a handful of states have filed legislation that would allow insurance companies to ignore the provision, which is part of Obama’s health care overhaul.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are named as defendants in that suit and Tuesday’s filed by Geneva and the ADF.

“At Geneva College, we only have one Lord, and he does not live in Washington, D.C.,” Geneva College President Ken Smith said in a statement.

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