WASHINGTON (BP) — Two Southern Baptist entities have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower-court decision in order to protect the religious freedom of two Baptist universities and a Presbyterian seminary.
The International Mission Board and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission filed a friend-of-the-court brief Aug. 10 that calls for the high court to grant the appeal of a ruling that upheld enforcement of the abortion/contraception mandate on the Christian schools. In the case, Houston Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University and Westminster Theological Seminary have petitioned the justices regarding a June opinion by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The case is one of more than 50 involving religious non-profit organizations that object to a controversial rule helping implement the 2010 health-care law. The regulation requires employers to provide for their workers not only contraceptives but drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions. The Department of Health and Human Services provided an exemption to the rule for churches and their auxiliaries, but the accommodation it offered for other religious institutions failed to satisfy the conscience objections of many of those ministries.
The case involving HBU, ETBU and Westminster is one of six appeals of decisions unfavorable to religious institutions regarding the mandate before the Supreme Court. GuideStone Financial Resources — the Southern Baptist Convention’s health and financial benefits entity — and two of the ministries it serves are parties in one of the appeals.
The justices are expected to weigh review of the appeals from the religious institutions in late September or early October, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The high court’s next term will begin in October.
In their brief, the IMB and ERLC told the justices the abortion/contraception mandate requires the schools to defy Scripture, Christian doctrine and Southern Baptist belief by authorizing the provision of abortion-causing drugs. The rule burdens the religious institutions’ free exercise of religion by requiring them to violate either their consciences or the government, according to the brief.
“It is sad that we have been forced to spend so much of the past six years fighting for the most basic protections of religious conscience,” said ERLC President Russell Moore. “Once again, we petition the Supreme Court to stop the Obama administration’s assault on the First Amendment.
“This brief makes clear that we will not settle for a halfway right to religious liberty,” he said in comments for Baptist Press. “Soul freedom is our God-given inheritance, and we will not surrender it.”
The HHS accommodation enables non-profit religious organizations to notify the federal agency in writing of their objections to the abortion/contraception mandate. In response, the federal government will notify the insurer or a third-party administrator it is responsible for providing employees of the non-profit with payments to cover the services.
Religious liberty and pro-life advocates find the rule woefully lacking, contending it serves basically as an accounting gimmick that makes a religious organization a channel through which coverage for contraceptives and potentially abortion-causing drugs is provided.
In their brief, the IMB and ERLC told the Supreme Court, “In light of the broad scope of the Christian faith and the Southern Baptist theological opposition to abortion, [HBU, ETBU and Westminster] cannot, as a matter of doctrine and conscience, distribute abortion-inducing drugs and devices directly or indirectly by authorizing, obligating, or incentivizing a third party — and particularly their own third-party administrators — to provide such drugs and devices to others. Scripture and Southern Baptist belief prohibit not only direct and personal wrongdoing, but also the enabling, authorizing, incentivizing, or aiding of another in doing what the Christian believes to be sin.”
The mandate “substantially burden[s] the religious exercise of [the schools] by imposing draconian fines on them as a result of their acts that are specifically mandated by Christian doctrine,” according to the brief. It asked the Supreme Court to review “whether centuries-old religious groups may practice their traditional beliefs free from intrusive State regulation.”
The controversial regulation, first issued in 2011, requires coverage of federally approved contraceptives, including 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.
The Supreme Court has been more receptive than appeals courts to the objections of religious non-profits. The high court has granted temporary relief from appellate rulings five times, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In two of those orders this year, the high court vacated appeals court rulings and ordered the circuits to reconsider their decisions in light of the justices’ ruling last year in support of the religious freedom of for-profit companies regarding the mandate.
In June 2014, the Supreme Court upheld objections against the mandate by “closely held,” for-profit companies, such as family owned businesses. The justices ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, the nationwide retail chain owned by evangelical Christians, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company owned by pro-life Mennonites.
When HBU, ETBU and Westminster filed their petition with the high court July 8, Houston Baptist President Robert Sloan said in a Becket Fund news release, “We didn’t go looking for this fight. But here we stand and can do no other. We cannot help the government or anyone else provide potentially life-threatening drugs and devices.”
In addition to the IMB and ERLC, 16 states were among parties filing friend-of-the-court briefs Aug. 10 in support of HBU, ETBU and Westminster.
HBU and ETBU are affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Westminster is located in Philadelphia, Pa.
GuideStone, which announced its appeal to the Supreme Court July 23, was joined by Truett-McConnell College and Reaching Souls International in its suit. Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Reaching Souls is an Oklahoma City-based missions organization that trains Africans to reach their continent with the Gospel of Christ.