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GuideStone, ministries gain win against HHS mandate

DALLAS (BP) — GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and the ministries it serves have gained a vital, legal victory against the Obama-era abortion/contraception mandate, marking a seven-year religious liberty battle.

A federal court in Oklahoma issued a permanent injunction March 15 that bars the U.S. government from enforcing a 2011 rule that helped implement a controversial health care law enacted the previous year. The regulation by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requires employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those that can potentially induce abortions, or face potentially devastating fines.

The Trump administration released new HHS rules in October that exempt those employers that object to the mandate based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions. A federal court in Philadelphia, however, blocked enforcement of the new regulations with a preliminary injunction in December that applies to the entire country.

The nationwide injunction appeared to confirm the wisdom of efforts by GuideStone and other objectors to the abortion/contraception mandate to gain longstanding protection in federal court for freedom of conscience.

The Oklahoma court’s permanent injunction safeguards GuideStone and its fellow plaintiffs in the case — Truett McConnell University, a Georgia Baptist institution, and Reaching Souls International, an Oklahoma mission-sending entity. The injunction notes that it also protects “all current and future participating employers in the GuideStone Plan, and any third-party administrators acting on behalf of these entities with respect to the GuideStone Plan.”

Southern Baptist leaders applauded the court’s relief for GuideStone and its partners.

“This permanent injunction provides clarity and certainty in the health care regulation arena for the ministries we serve, which have had little of both over the last decade,” GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said.

“For 100 years, we’ve committed to serving those who serve the Lord with the integrity of our hearts and skillfulness of our hands,” Hawkins said. “One way we are able to do that is through working with legislators and regulators on behalf of our participants. This case required a deep, long-term commitment from GuideStone, which took us all the way to the Supreme Court, but it bears much fruit today for those we serve.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the injunction “an important victory for religious liberty.” 

“The only sad thing about it is the notion that such basic freedoms would ever be called into question in the United States,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “After such a long and difficult struggle, I’m grateful that GuideStone and the other organizations are protected by the injunction so that they can continue to serve pastors with excellence and faithfulness.”

Harold R. Loftin Jr., GuideStone’s chief legal officer, said the permanent injunction “ensures that no ministry GuideStone serves is forced to choose between following its conscience or facing fines that may put its very existence at risk. This is the very heart of why we have the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to insist that the government accomplish its goals without unduly forcing people of faith to violate their deeply held beliefs.”

RFRA, a 1993 federal law, requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means to burden a person’s religious free exercise.

The 2011 abortion/contraception mandate resulted in legal challenges from more than 90 religious nonprofits, including GuideStone and several Baptist universities. Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order that serves the elderly poor, became the face of the objecting institutions.

In May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified multiple federal appeals court decisions against the religious nonprofits and blocked the Obama administration from imposing fines on them. The justices told the appeals courts involved to give the parties an opportunity to reach a solution “that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” No agreement was reached before Obama left office in January 2017.

GuideStone gained a favorable ruling in its suit Oct. 23, when the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver dismissed an HHS appeal filed during the Obama administration. The HHS under President Trump had filed a voluntary motion to dismiss the appeal after it issued new rules Oct. 6. The 10th Circuit’s action returned the case to an Oklahoma federal court.

Among other cases involving Southern Baptist challenges to the HHS mandate:

— East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) in Marshall and Houston Baptist University (HBU) continue in negotiations with the Department of Justice to reach a final resolution, according to Becket, a legal nonprofit representing the schools. A permanent federal court injunction has protected them from the mandate since December 2013, Becket reported.

— Two other Baptist schools — Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee and Louisiana College in Pineville — have lawsuits that apparently are still active, though the latter gained a summary judgment in federal court in 2014. Information on the status of the cases was not available from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) before the deadline for this article. ADF represents both schools.

— Union University in Jackson, Tenn., reached a settlement in its lawsuit against the HHS, the university announced in November. The federal government agreed the mandate had substantially burdened Union’s religious free exercise and permanently exempted it from the requirement.

In cases involving other Baptist institutions, a federal judge dismissed a suit by Criswell College in Dallas in 2013 on the grounds HHS was addressing the school’s concerns. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., dropped its challenge after a 2013 loss at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The school gained an exemption from the mandate through protection under a grandfather clause, according to Liberty Counsel, which represented the school.

While GuideStone was exempt from the mandate, it serves ministries that were forced to obey the requirement, including Truett-McConnell and Reaching Souls International. GuideStone had gained a temporary injunction against the mandate from an Oklahoma federal judge in 2013, but a panel of the Tenth Circuit Court struck down the injunction in 2015.

Hawkins expressed gratitude to Becket and GuideStone’s legal team for its work on the suit.

When HHS issued new rules in early October, the federal department said the regulations would have no effect on government programs that offer free or subsidized contraceptive coverage to low-income women and would have no effect on more than 99.9 percent of American women.

When it issued the abortion/contraception mandate in August 2011, HHS provided an exemption for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. HHS proposed nearly 10 accommodations for the objecting institutions, but none proved satisfactory to the organizations’ conscience concerns.

The federally approved contraceptives for which coverage is required by the mandate include the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the “morning-after” pill. Both the IUD and “morning-after” pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which — in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 — can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby’s conscience-based challenge to the abortion/contraception mandate. In its 5-4 opinion in that case, the justices upheld objections to the requirement by “closely held,” for-profit companies, such as family owned businesses.

Messengers to the 2012 SBC meeting adopted a resolution calling for an exemption from the mandate for “all religious organizations and people of faith … who declare a religious objection to such coverage.”

    About the Author

  • Tom Strode and Roy Hayhurst

    Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press; Roy Hayhurst is director of denominational and public relations services for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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