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Supreme Court to Hear College’s Case Against HHS Mandate

Posted: November 6, 2015

The Supreme Court of the United States has granted a writ of certiorari to Thomas Aquinas College’s challenge of the HHS contraceptive mandate.

This afternoon the Court announced that it had agreed to hear seven cases filed by religious organizations in opposition to the mandate that compels them to facilitate free contraceptive, abortifacient, and sterilization coverage for their employees. Among the lawsuits, which the Court is consolidating into a single case, is Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Burwell, Sec. of H&HS, et al., in which the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., the Catholic University of America, and Thomas Aquinas College are co-plaintiffs.

“This decision by the Supreme Court is a sign of the importance of these cases and their implications for religious freedom and freedom of conscience all across the country — freedoms which we believe are guaranteed both by statute and the United States Constitution,” says Thomas Aquinas College President Michael F. McLean. “We are hopeful that the Court will uphold these freedoms and allow religious institutions to provide health insurance for their employees in a way consistent with the tenets of their faith.”

Today’s news is the latest step in a legal effort that began more than two years ago. The College originally filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on September 20, 2013, and prevailed, receiving a permanent injunction from the HHS Mandate. The U.S. government, however, appealed that decision, and on November 14, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted the government’s appeal, removing the injunction. At that time, the College filed a motion (PDF) for an en banc hearing of the case. In July, 2015, a majority of the court denied the motion. The College quickly requested and received an emergency stay in the matter, which effectively shields it from the Mandate until the Supreme Court rules on the merits of the case.

At issue, the College argued in its petition for the writ, is whether “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act … allows the Government to force objecting religious nonprofit organizations to violate their beliefs by offering health plans with ‘seamless’ access to coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization.” The petition argued that the Supreme Court should hear the case, “because it affects the rights of untold thousands of nonprofit religious groups under federal law.”

In a subsequent reply brief, filed in August, the College’s attorneys presented the legal reasoning behind their case, forcefully rebutting the government’s claim that Catholic organizations’ opposition to the Mandate is “a quibble over a ‘bit of paperwork.’” For Catholic institutions, the attorneys argued, serious moral issues are at stake:

As this Court has recognized, the context and consequences of an action are obviously relevant to whether that action is morally objectionable. Thus, even “an act that is innocent in itself” may become objectionable depending on “the circumstances.” Hobby Lobby, 134 S. Ct. at 2778. For example, giving a neighbor a ride to the bank may not be morally problematic — unless one knows the neighbor intends to rob that bank. A Jewish school may not object to hiring a vendor to serve lunch to its students — unless the vendor was required to serve non-Kosher food. The same is true here. Petitioners have no inherent objection to hiring an insurance company or TPA [third-party administrator]. But they strongly object to hiring an insurance company or TPA that will provide abortifacient and contraceptive coverage to their plan beneficiaries.

With the Court having agreed to hear these cases, Thomas Aquinas College’s lawsuit could prove key to determining the legal fate of the HHS Mandate. “We very much hope that the Court will uphold the religious liberty of Thomas Aquinas College, our co-plaintiffs, and all the plaintiffs in the seven cases which have now been consolidated for review,” says Thomas Aquinas College General Counsel John Quincy Masteller. “This is a hopeful day for the cause of religious liberty in the United States.”

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Patrick Nazeck (’19) -- quote 2

“Here I am surrounded by other people my age who share my interests, who value their education as much as I do, and whom I can have fun with while still learning about big ideas. It is an awesome experience that I have never found anywhere else.”

– Patrick Nazeck (’19)

Ridgecrest, California

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– The Most Rev. J. Michael Miller

Archbishop of Vancouver

Former Secretary, Congregation for Catholic Education

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