Under Obamacare, or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, employers of over 50 people were required to offer a group health plan to their employees. The plan had to provide “minimum essential coverage” to the employees, which included “preventive care and screenings” for women.
In February 2012, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized rules that said this preventive care had to include employer funding for pills and devices that can facilitate abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from developing.
Geneva College and Southern Nazarene University (SNU) are both religious schools, and they object to abortion because of their deeply held religious beliefs. While the Obama administration claimed to offer an accommodation for religious nonprofits like the two schools, it still forced them to authorize funding for abortion methods. Both schools sued HHS over the birth control mandate, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the cases.
What are Geneva College and Southern Nazarene University?
Geneva College is a Christian liberal arts school in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Its goal is to “equip students for faithful and fruitful service to God and neighbor” through a Christ-centered education.
Southern Nazarene University is a liberal arts university in Bethany, Oklahoma. Like Geneva, SNU centers its work on Christ. The school’s mission is “to make Christlike disciples through higher education.”
As Christian institutions, both schools knew they could not comply with the HHS birth control mandate, and that’s why they had to take legal action.
President Barack Obama and his administration offered a so-called “accommodation” for some religious nonprofit organizations that objected to the birth control mandate. According to the administration, these nonprofits could authorize their insurers to provide abortion pills and devices for employees instead of offering the methods themselves. To qualify for these accommodations, organizations had to sign forms stating that they were religious nonprofits and were opposed to providing abortion pills because of their beliefs. After the forms were signed, the organization’s insurers were allowed to pay for abortion methods for employees of the organization.
But by signing these forms, the nonprofit organizations were specifically enabling insurers to pay for the birth control methods they objected to.
According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, the government cannot establish a law that “substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion” unless the law helps achieve a “compelling government interest” and is the “least restrictive” way to achieve that interest.
Both Geneva College and SNU alleged that requiring them to sign forms enabling insurers to pay for objectionable birth control methods violated RFRA, and they each filed lawsuits with the help of ADF attorneys.
While both schools earned favorable rulings in separate district courts, those rulings were reversed by two separate appellate courts. ADF attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which consolidated these two cases and five similar cases.
The Court did not rule on whether the HHS mandate violated RFRA, but it decided that insurers for the nonprofits could reasonably provide access to the birth control methods for employees without requiring signed forms from the organizations.
With this knowledge, the Court sent the cases back to the lower courts “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise.” Meanwhile, it barred the government from imposing taxes or penalties on Geneva College, SNU, or any of the other petitioners for not complying with the birth control mandate.
In May 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma permanently barred the government from enforcing the birth control mandate against SNU. Two months later, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania followed suit and permanently protected Geneva College from the mandate.
Thanks to this SCOTUS decision, Geneva College, SNU, and other religious schools like them no longer have to fear massive fines for refusing to follow government mandates that were illegal in the first place. They are now able to provide health insurance to both students and employees without compromising their religious beliefs.
- May 2012: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Geneva College alleging the HHS birth control mandate violated RFRA.
- September 2013: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Southern Nazarene University alleging the HHS birth control mandate violated RFRA.
- December 2013: The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma granted ADF’s petition to halt enforcement of the mandate against Southern Nazarene University. On the same day, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania halted enforcement of the mandate against Geneva College. HHS appealed both rulings.
- February 2015: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the district court decision and ruled Geneva College had not shown that HHS had violated RFRA.
- July 2015: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed the district court decision and ruled Southern Nazarene University had not shown that HHS had violated RFRA. ADF appealed both circuit courts’ decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- May 2016: The Supreme Court consolidated the two cases and five similar cases. The Court did not decide whether the HHS mandate violated RFRA, but it sent the cases back to the lower courts “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise.”
- May 2018: The district court in Oklahoma issued an order permanently protecting Southern Nazarene University from enforcement of the birth control mandate.
- July 2018: The district court in Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion and permanently protected Geneva College from enforcement of the mandate.
The bottom line
Every religious institution—including colleges and universities—should be able to operate according to their faith without interference by the government.