Court Reinstates Obamacare Lawsuits

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rules Obama administration formalize religious exceptions

December 19, 2012

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the Obama administration by ruling in favor of two Christian schools suing for exemptions from the Obamacare contraception mandate, the Becket Fund announced.

The Court ruled that two lower courts inappropriately dismissed Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College’s suits, and reinstated the two schools’ lawsuits.

The Court also mandated that the administration follow through on its promises to create a satisfactory religious exemption for the two schools and is requiring the administration to provide updates every 60 days.

The administration announced regulations for Obamacare this winter that required all employers to cover contraception in their health plans for their employees. Catholic groups objected immediately and vocally, as they oppose all forms of contraception. Many Protestant groups also objected as the regulations required them to cover drugs they consider to be abortion-inducing.

The Obama administration promised to create new regulations that protected religious groups’ First Amendment rights but they also finalized regulations that made the objectionable requirements law.

The appellants argued that non-binding statements and promises made by the Obama administration earlier this year should not be enough to exempt the administration from suits over finalized regulations that curtailed religious freedom.

"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, in a statement.

The Becket Fund is "a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute that protects the free expression of all faiths," according to its website.

The case caught the attention of other legal organizations, which weighed in on the lower courts’ decision to dismiss Wheaton and Belmont Abbey’s suits.

The Cato Institute, the American Civil Rights Union, and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence jointly filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the two schools.

"The executive branch cannot perpetually preclude judicial review of its own unconstitutional action by simply announcing plans to perhaps consider, at some point in time, some unspecified change in the regulation," the brief says.

The Fund’s announcement explained the Appeals Court’s reasoning:

The court based its decision on two concessions that government lawyers made in open court. First, the government promised "it would never enforce [the mandate] in its current form" against Wheaton, Belmont Abbey or other similarly situated religious groups.  Second, the government promised it would publish a proposed new rule "in the first quarter of 2013" and would finalize it by next August. The administration made both concessions under intense questioning by the appellate judges.  The court deemed the concessions a "binding commitment" and has retained jurisdiction over the case to ensure the government follows through.

The ruling comes several days after the Court heard oral arguments, which the National Catholic Reporter characterized as "spirited," noting that the hearings lasted "twice their scheduled length."