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Grace College gets temporary reprieve on birth control mandate

A second religious organization in northeast Indiana has won a temporary reprieve from the contraception mandate of the federal health care law.

Grace College and Seminary of Winona Lake, along with Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., were granted a preliminary injunction they sought from a federal court against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The decision allows the schools to avoid providing their employees and students with medical insurance that covers birth-control methods and sterilization procedures. The contraception insurance requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is scheduled to take effect today.

U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio of the Northern District of Indiana in South Bend granted the injunction Friday, the same day he approved a similar request from the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and six affiliates in Indiana and Illinois.

In both cases, the plaintiffs argued that their religious rights would be violated if they were forced to provide their employees with medical insurance that pays for contraceptives – or be fined if they failed to.

For Grace and Biola, the injunction applies to insured students as well.

“Grace appreciates the court’s decision in upholding our rights as a Christian based institution to keep our most core beliefs and convictions regarding the sanctity of human life,” Grace President Bill Katip said Tuesday in a statement.

“Although this is only the first step, we believe the courts will continue to see the unconstitutional nature of this mandate and continue to protect our religious freedoms.”

Officials at Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice declined to comment.

The injunctions were the ninth and 10th awarded to religious organizations by federal courts in six states and Washington, D.C., since June. Five of those rulings came in December.

Courts have sided with HHS in four other cases, including the Dec. 20 denial of an injunction sought by the University of Notre Dame.

Employment benefits compliance attorney Doug Powers and IPFW medical ethicist Abe Schwab each predicted Tuesday that the lawsuits from which the injunctions sprang will ultimately be decided by higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Schwab said the legal battles boil down to a person’s ability to obtain health insurance that meets minimum federal standards – including birth-control coverage – versus an employer’s ability to provide insurance plans that square with the employer’s religious beliefs.

“We don’t want to say no to either one,” Schwab said.

He said the post-World War II employer-based health insurance system in America “is what got us to where we are. There’s not a really good answer here.”

Grace and Biola filed a joint lawsuit against Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2012, claiming the contraception insurance mandate would violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution (religious and due-process rights, respectively).

The injunction delays enforcement of the mandate until a decision is reached in the suit.

DeGuilio wrote in his ruling that the plaintiffs “have shown that their RFRA claim stands a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, that irreparable harm will result without adequate remedy absent an injunction, and that the balance of harms favor protecting the religious-liberty rights of the plaintiffs.”

He wrote the same thing in granting a preliminary injunction for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. DeGuilio was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, whose biggest legislative achievement has been the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

Local attorney Powers pointed out that DeGuilio based his decisions on statutory law rather than constitutional law, although Powers noted that the RFRA “parallels very much the protections offered by the First Amendment.”

“The First Amendment issue is really kind of secondary in this case,” Powers said about the diocese injunction. “That surprised me a little bit. … Everybody’s been sort of clamoring over the First Amendment.”

Grace and Biola are private evangelical Christian colleges. The injunction states that 168 of Grace’s 457 workers and 60 of its 3,100 students are enrolled in the school’s health insurance plan.

Biola – founded as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles – says that 856 of its employees are eligible for medical coverage.