Though a federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by Wheaton College against the Obama administration over its contraception mandate, the evangelical college is claiming partial victory for rewritten "safe harbor" regulations.
Just weeks after Wheaton filed the lawsuit in July, the federal government rewrote its one-year "safe harbor" to include Wheaton. This means that Wheaton has until August 2013, instead of this year, before being forced to comply with the mandate.
Still, the Illinois-based college is not convinced that their religious freedom will be protected as employers will be required to provide health insurance coverage for some abortifacient drugs to its employees and students.
"The government has now re-written the 'safe harbor' guidelines three times in seven months, and is evidently in no hurry to defend the HHS mandate in open court," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement Monday. "By moving the goalposts yet again, the government managed to get Wheaton's lawsuit dismissed on purely technical grounds. This leaves unresolved the question of religious liberty at the heart of the lawsuit."
Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled that Wheaton's lawsuit was premature considering the government would not enforce the mandate until August 2013.
"The court decided that it wanted to wait until the government has completed its new so-called compromise, accommodation," Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, told The Christian Post.
The Health and Human Services mandate went into effect at the start of this month. While some religious institutions were given one extra year to comply with it, Wheaton was not eligible. After suing the government, the HHS department rewrote regulations to allow other employers such as Wheaton to have that extra year.
Over the next year, the HHS department said it will not take any enforcement action against any employer that is a nonprofit and that has not provided contraceptive coverage because of religious beliefs. It also said it plans to develop "alternative ways of providing contraceptive coverage without cost sharing with respect to non-exempted, non-profit religious organizations with religious objections to such coverage."
Though Wheaton does not oppose contraception in general, it does oppose abortifacient drugs such as Plan B which are required to be covered in health insurance plans under the HHS mandate.
Wheaton is currently "carefully considering" an appeal of the judge's ruling.
"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," the Becket Fund argued.
There are currently around two dozen lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.