Court Takes Gov’t at Its Word, Gives HHS until August to Accommodate Christian Colleges

By Jon Street | December 19, 2012 | 4:19pm EST

FILE - In this March 23, 2010, file photo, President Barack Obama reaches for a pen to sign the health care bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

( – A U.S. Appeals Court on Tuesday said the federal government will have until August 2013 to issue a “final rule” stating that Wheaton College and Belmont-Abbey College will not be forced to comply with the HHS mandate of Obamacare.

The mandate requires nearly all employers, regardless of their religious convictions, to provide their employees with health insurance that covers contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs free of charge through a cost-sharing system.

Because Wheaton is an evangelical Christian college and Belmont-Abbey is a Catholic college, the institutions believe that contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortions are morally and sinfully wrong. Thus, engaging in the use or support of such services violates their religious beliefs.

Acknowledging religious concerns, the Obama administration agreed in July 2011 to make “accommodations” for “religious” entities.

According to the administration’s criteria of a “religious” entity, only churches and monasteries are eligible for an accommodation. Other religious institutions such as schools and hospitals were not considered by the administration to be “religious enough” for the accommodation.

Wheaton College in Rockford, Ill. and Belmont-Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C. are two of the religious institutions ineligible for an accommodation, or exemption from the mandate.

Citing similar challenges to the mandate, the court consolidated the cases of Wheaton College and Belmont-Abbey College.

The district court dismissed the case in October on the grounds of “standing” and ripeness,” but a federal appellate court then granted Wheaton and Belmont-Abbey an expedited appeal based on the colleges’ claims that they were “suffering present harm” because of delayed pressure to violate their religious convictions.

A decision was handed down by the appeals court on Dec. 18.

“There will, the government said, be a different rule for entities like the appellants and we take that as a binding commitment,” the judges wrote.

“We take the government at its word and will hold it to it,” the judges continued. “Based expressly upon the understanding that the government will not deviate from its considered representations to this court, we conclude that the cases are not fit for review at this time because ‘[i]f we do not decide the merits of appellants’ challenge to the current rule, we may never need to.”

The judges further wrote, “we see nothing about the bringing of those claims that alters our conclusion that the petitioners’ lawsuits should be held in abeyance pending the new rule that the government has promised will be issued soon.”

“ORDERED, that in reliance upon the Department’s binding representations, this court will hold these cases in abeyance, subject to regular status reports to be filed by the government with this court every 60 days from the date of this order,” the judges concluded.

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