Two Baptist universities in Texas and a Pennsylvania-based seminary are taking their lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services' birth control mandate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Houston Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University, and Westminster Theological Seminary filed an appeal on Wednesday with the Supreme Court seeking exemption from the HHS mandate.
"Petitioners are two religious colleges and a theological seminary that provide generous healthcare plans to their employees. Those plans include free access to fourteen different kinds of contraceptives," reads the petition for appeal.
"But those plans exclude four types of contraceptives that petitioners believe constitute abortifacients. No one doubts the sincerity of petitioners' religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the Department of Health and Human Services believes that petitioners' employees must have free access to those four contraceptives under the auspices of petitioners' plans in order for petitioners to comply with the Affordable Care Act and the agency's contraceptive mandate and to avoid draconian penalties."
The three academic institutions are being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that has overseen dozens of suits against HHS over the mandate.
Becket Fund Legal Counsel Diana Verm told The Christian Post the schools "object to being forced to use their employee health plans to provide drugs and devices that could potentially terminate a human life."
"The cert petition is pending at the Supreme Court. The government will have a chance to respond before the Court decides whether to take the case," said Verm.
"If the institutions do not receive relief from the Supreme Court they will be forced to choose between paying fines of up to millions of dollars each and violating their faith."
In October 2012, East Texas Baptist and Houston Baptist filed a lawsuit against HHS over the preventive services mandate, taking specific issue with the four FDA approved abortifacients required by the mandate.
In March 2013, Westminster Theological Seminary of Glenside filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the two Baptist universities.
James M. Sweet, an attorney and vice president for Institutional Advancement at Westminster Theological Seminary, told The Christian Post in 2013 that the issue was not over contraception.
"We have no issue with contraception as we make clear in our papers," said Sweet. "Our issue is with the required inclusion of so-called abortifacient drugs that the government, through the mandate, requires be present in our policy or, alternatively, if we seek the accommodation offered by the government, in the policies of each and every one of our employees."
Initially the three institutions were successful in getting an exemption from the mandate, when a federal judge ruled against HHS in December 2013.
However, last month a three judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court ruling, arguing that the institutions were not substantially burdened by the mandate.
"Because the plaintiffs have not shown and are not likely to show that the requirement substantially burdens their religious exercise under established law, we reverse," concluded the panel.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal, this will not be the first time that the Becket Fund has represented an entity seeking an exemption from the HHS mandate.
In 2014, the highest court in the land ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. when its leadership sought an exemption from having to provide four of the FDA-approved birth control methods on the basis of a religious objection.