WASHINGTON (BP) — GuideStone Financial Resources and the ministries it serves must abide by the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate or pay crushing fines, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday (July 14).
A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined to grant an injunction blocking enforcement of the rule, rejecting arguments by GuideStone and a host of other religious non-profit organizations that the controversial mandate and its accommodation for such entities violate their religious freedom. The mandate requires employers to provide not only contraceptives for their workers but drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions.
GuideStone — the Southern Baptist Convention’s health and financial benefits entity — and its attorneys are considering an appeal to the full 10th Circuit Court or to the U.S. Supreme Court, it said in a news release.
The decision is “a setback” but “not the final outcome,” GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said in the release.
“This is a disappointing decision, for both religious liberty and for the sanctity of life,” Hawkins said. “This is a day for all of us to bombard the Throne of Grace with petitions for a favorable outcome on appeal, for strength of resolve, for the unborn in this country and for all of our leaders, so many of whom have turned their back on the founding principles of this country.”
SBC President Ronnie Floyd joined Hawkins in calling for prayerful determination.
“This decision shows the deep need for us not just to pray, but to further resolve together that we will go forward standing for religious liberty and for the sanctity of human life unrelentingly,” Floyd said in comments for Baptist Press. “May God give to Dr. O.S. Hawkins, to GuideStone, and to others, the wisdom and strength to do what is necessary to continue in this worthy pursuit.”
SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page said, “We join with Dr. O.S. Hawkins and the trustees and staff of GuideStone in expressing our deep displeasure at this ruling. It is a sad day when the government refuses to recognize the heartfelt beliefs and conscience of God’s people. It is indicative of the overreach of our judicial system which has become customary in the 21st-century. We will not give up this fight.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), called it a disappointing ruling “that reveals the instincts of a state-established religion — one that seeks to use the law as a means to steamroll the conscience and stamp out opposition. This decision forces a choice between obedience to God and compliance with the regulatory state. We must stand with conscience.”
The 10th Circuit opinion came in three combined cases that included not only GuideStone as a party but two Southern Baptist-affiliated schools — Truett-McConnell College in Georgia and Oklahoma Baptist University — and Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns in Denver.
The loss by GuideStone and its allies is the latest in a series of defeats at the federal appellate level for religious organizations that object to the abortion/contraception mandate. In other recent rulings:
— The Seventh Circuit Court refused July 1 to grant Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in suburban Chicago, an injunction against the rule while its case proceeds.
— The Fifth Circuit Court declined June 22 a request for an injunction from two Southern Baptist-affiliated schools — East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University — and Westminster Theological Seminary.
The Texas Baptist universities and Westminster Seminary have since appealed to the Supreme Court. Their July 8 petition brought to five the number of appeals to the high court in decisions against nonprofits.
Though federal appeals courts have rebuffed nonprofits that oppose the mandate, the Supreme Court has blocked such actions by appellate panels six consecutive 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’ 2014 ruling 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.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the rule in question to help implement the 2010 health care law. The regulation 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.
HHS provided an exemption to the rule, which was first proposed in August 2011, for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. It issued an accommodation for religious nonprofits, but many of those ministries or institutions have found it unacceptable.
In its latest version announced July 10, HSS finalized a rule, similar to one offered in August 2014, that enables non-profit religious organizations to notify HHS in writing of their religious objections. In response, the federal government will notify the insurer or a third-party administrator it is responsible for providing employees of the nonprofit with payments to cover the services.
Religious liberty and pro-life advocates still find the rule woefully lacking, contending it is basically an accounting gimmick that turns the religious organizations into channels through which coverage for contraceptives and potentially abortion-causing drugs is provided.
In its July 14 opinion, the 10th Circuit panel found unconvincing the arguments of GuideStone and its allies that the HHS accommodation would still make them complicit in providing abortifacient or contraceptive coverage.
“Having to file paperwork or otherwise register a religious objection, even if one disagrees with the ultimate aim of the law at issue, does not alone substantially burden religious exercise,” Judge Scott Matheson wrote for the panel.
HHS has made opting out of the requirement “at least as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax form, or registering to vote — in other words, a routine, brief administrative task,” Matheson wrote. “Opting out ensures they will play no part in the provision of contraceptive coverage, prohibits [third-party administrators] and health insurance issuers from sharing the costs of providing coverage with them, and requires notice to employees that they do not administer or fund contraceptive services.”
Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for GuideStone and its co-plaintiffs, said the 10th Circuit’s decision “leaves in place the federal government’s aggressive, discriminatory, and unnecessary attack on the core religious beliefs of private religious ministries.”
“The government does not need to take over a church benefits plan to provide abortion-inducing drugs — the most powerful government in the world can obviously distribute drugs without co-opting religious institutions and their health plans,” said Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, in the GuideStone release.
The lawsuit marks the first time GuideStone has sued the federal government. Truett-McConnell College and Reaching Souls International — both participants in GuideStone’s health plans — joined the SBC entity in its suit. Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, and Reaching Souls is an Oklahoma City-based missions organization that trains Africans to reach their continent with the Gospel of Christ.
Three other SBC entities — the ERLC, International Mission Board and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary –- filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of GuideStone’s request for a preliminary injunction.
GuideStone, which is based in Dallas, serves not only churches but missions organizations, schools, hospitals and other ministries. In addition to health and other insurance coverage, GuideStone also offers retirement, investment management, property and casualty coverage, and other services.
Dallas law firm Locke Lord LLP joined the Becket Fund in filing the lawsuit for GuideStone and its co-plaintiffs.