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New lawsuit

Religion | Evangelicals ratchet up pressure on President Obama to expand the healthcare law's conscience clause

WASHINGTON-An evangelical college has sued the federal government over the thin conscience protections in the national healthcare law-a concern that many have chiefly associated with Catholics. The same day the school filed the suit, an array of evangelical leaders sent another letter to the White House contesting the current conscience protections and urging President Obama to expand those protections.

"If the administration thought that conscience objections to this [Health and Human Services] mandate would be muted or isolated, Colorado Christian's lawsuit proves otherwise," Hannah Smith, a senior legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the college in the suit, said in a statement. "Evangelical Christians have now joined Catholics to defend their religious rights."

Colorado Christian University filed the lawsuit last Wednesday contesting the constitutionality of the healthcare law, which says employers must provide coverage for contraceptives, including abortifacients like Plan B and Ella, drugs that can prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb. The law allows an exemption from that rule for a religious employer only if the organization primarily employs and serves the same religion, and has as its main purpose the "inculcation of religious values," which essentially only covers churches. Colorado Christian is a nondenominational school in Lakewood, Colo., with about 4,200 students, and it does not expect it would fall under the religious exemption.

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"Colorado Christian's religious beliefs forbid it from participating in, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion," the school's lawsuit reads. "The government's mandate unconstitutionally coerces Colorado Christian to violate its deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties."

Belmont Abbey College, a 1,700-student Catholic school in North Carolina, was the first religious organization to file a suit on the conscience matter in November. Earlier that month, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, met with President Obama and came away hopeful that the president would expand the conscience protections (see "Conscience question," Dec. 17). But religious freedom experts are dubious whether those protections will be sufficient for most faith-based groups, even if the administration expands the protections.

Last Wednesday, a spectrum of religious leaders-from Evangelicals for Social Action as well as Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Agudath Israel of America, and dozens of others-wrote the president on the matter. The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents 137 Protestant schools, also signed on.

"It is emphatically not only Catholics who deeply object to the requirement that health plans they purchase must provide coverage of contraceptives that include some that are abortifacients," they wrote Obama. "It is not only Catholics who object to the narrow exemption that protects only seminaries and a few churches, but not churches with a social outreach and other faith-based organizations that serve the poor and needy broadly providing help that goes beyond worship and prayer."

Evangelicals haven't been quiet on the matter until now. The same group who wrote Obama last week also wrote him in August calling the exemption "narrow" and inadequate." Part of evangelicals' concern is that the administration may expand the conscience protections to cover groups that have denominational affiliations-which would be helpful for Catholic groups, but would leave many nondenominational faith-based groups unprotected.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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