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Colleges in court

Religion | Five schools are now suing over the Obama administration's contraception mandate

Two more evangelical Christian colleges are suing the federal government over the contraceptive coverage mandate included in the new national healthcare law, a requirement administrators from both schools say violates their constitutional rights.

Louisiana College, in Pineville, La., filed its suit on Saturday, while Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., will file its suit Tuesday. Attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) will represent both schools. (Editor's note: See an update at the end of this article about another college filing suit this week.)

The suits are part of the latest round of opposition to the law, which has united Catholics and evangelical Protestants in withering criticism of the federal government's expanding power.

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"The Obama administration has attempted to negate existing real protections for religious freedom and it has no authority to do that," Matt Bowman, an ADF lawyer, told me.

Under the new healthcare law, employers must provide coverage for contraceptives, including abortifacients like Plan B and Ella, which can prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb. The law includes a narrow religious exemption that would apply only to churches, requiring schools, hospitals, and community service organizations to comply or face large fines.

On Feb. 10, after at first dismissing the severe backlash from religious leaders over the mandate, President Barack Obama announced what he called a compromise-a plan to shift the burden and cost of providing contraceptives from religious employers to insurance companies.

But the president's proposal placated few religious leaders, who called it nothing more than a shell game. Under the proposal, insurance companies would simply raise the rates for religious organizations to cover the cost of contraceptives, ultimately making these organizations pay for something to which they object. And that objection is at the heart of the real issue: freedom of conscience.

"The First Amendment protects Americans from mandates that require us to act against our own convictions," said Kenneth Smith, president of Geneva College, in a news release provided by the ADF. "We find the mandate to provide our faculty, staff, and students with insurance that provides pills to abort babies totally abhorrent and unacceptable. The government shouldn't be able to force anyone to buy or sell insurance that subsidizes morally objectionable treatments."

ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot accused the Obama administration of inventing a fake right-access to free birth control-and elevating it above rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. "This calculated and intentional attempt to eradicate constitutional protections should terrify every freedom-loving American," he said.

The suits by the two colleges argue that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the Constitution's First and Fifth amendments.

The government is facing at least two other suits filed by schools opposed to the mandate. Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic school in Belmont, N.C., filed suit first, in November. Colorado Christian University, a nondenominational school in Lakewood, Colo., became the first evangelical school to file suit, just before Christmas. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents both schools.

All four colleges are within the jurisdiction of different federal appeals court districts, which means each individual case could potentially end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. When asked whether the geographical spread of the cases was part of a legal strategy, Bowman said only that the Obama administration's attack on First Amendment rights was so broad that it had victims all over the country.

"Like many kinds of religious groups and people, [these colleges] want to participate in society without being forced to violate their religious beliefs at the hands of the federal government asserting overreaching regulatory power," he said.

In an email sent to Geneva students on Monday, Smith asked them to pray that God's will would be done, in courtrooms across the country and in Washington: "Our prayer is not only for success in the courts, but that God will use this effort to change the hearts and minds of many toward the protection of life."

UPDATE on Tuesday, Feb. 20: A fifth college, Ave Maria University, a Catholic school in southwest Florida, filed suit over the contraceptive mandate Tuesday. In a news release issued by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the school, college President Jim Towey said that Ave Maria had no choice but to fight for its rights: "It is a sad day when an American citizen or organization has no choice but to sue its own government in order to exercise religious liberty rights guaranteed by our nation's Constitution. Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action, is a perilous precedent."


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