(Photo: Wheaton College)
A federal appeals court on Tuesday sided with Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College in a decision related to the ongoing court challenges to the Obama administration's birth control mandate. The court said it would hold the Obama administration to its promise to never implement the current birth control mandate and to create a new rule by August, as part of the court decision.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to give it updates every 60 days, beginning in February, until a new rule is issued in August. The lawsuits will be held in abeyance until that time.
"There will, the government said, be a different rule for entities like the appellants," the court wrote, "and we take that as a binding commitment. The government further represented that it would publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the new rule in the first quarter of 2013 and would issue a new Final Rule before August 2013. We take the government at its word and will hold it to it."
Sebelius first issued the rule in January. As part of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," she ruled that employers must cover contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs in their health care insurance for employees. There is a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that most religious employers, including religious schools, are not exempt. There have been about 40 lawsuits related to the mandate.
President Barack Obama has promised to make an accommodation for religious employers, but the only accommodation, thus far, has been a grace period for some religious employers before they will be bound by the mandate.
"The D.C. Circuit has now made it clear that government promises and press conferences are not enough to protect religious freedom," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who argued the case. "The court is not going to let the government slide by on non-binding promises to fix the problem down the road."
Duncan believes the decision is a major victory for opponents of the mandate because HHS is now bound by the court to never implement the mandate in its current form.
"This is a win not just for Belmont Abbey and Wheaton, but for all religious nonprofits challenging the mandate," added Duncan. "The government has now been forced to promise that it will never enforce the current mandate against religious employers like Wheaton and Belmont Abbey and a federal appellate court will hold the government to its word."