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Affordable Care Act

Houston Baptist University and Other Texas Groups Fight Federal Birth Control Rules

Some religious organizations say the Affordable Care Act’s “opt out” provision still imposes a burden on their religious beliefs.



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Robert Sloan
Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, is joined Tuesday by HBU students protesting outside of federal court in downtown Houston. HBU is one of several Texas religious groups suing over the federal rules for providing birth control coverage to employees.  


The plaintiffs in Texas include religious universities and a seminary, and some Catholic dioceses.  The suit is one of several across the country that involve the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that if employers provide health insurance, they have to include coverage of contraception for women.

The Texas plaintiffs appeared in downtown Houston on Tuesday for oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs won on the district court level, but the federal government appealed.

The case hinges on what exactly the religious colleges must do to avoid IRS fines under the Affordable Care Act. The government did allow exemptions from the mandate, such as one for objecting churches that have employees.

But religious colleges don’t get the same exemption. Instead, they can fill out a form saying they do object, and turn over responsibility for the contraception coverage to their insurance company. Insurance carriers absorb the cost and contact female employees separately about how to obtain the benefit. But the colleges say the third-party arrangement still means they are morally involved in the government’s mandate.

“We believe four of the so-called contraceptive methods are in fact abortion-inducing, and that’s what we object to,” said Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University, one of the plaintiffs.  

Those methods include the morning-after pill and IUDs, and there’s plenty of disagreement about whether those are the same as abortion.

An attorney for the federal government argued in court that religious colleges can just use the required form. If the insurance company won’t pay for the contraception, the federal government can pay for it.

But attorneys for the colleges say even filling out the form is a sin. And if they don’t fill out the form, they could face big IRS fines.

“There’s nothing wrong with having some insurance regulation, but when you say we have to go out and get an insurance company that’s going to provide this stuff, we’re morally complicit,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The fund helped argue the case on behalf of the plaintiffs.  

“You don’t say ‘Oh, like, we’ll just outsource our consciences to somebody else,’” Rassbach added.

Adam Jed, the appellate staff attorney for the civil division of the Department of Justice, said in court that these groups do have a right to religiously object to doing something, but they can’t object to having an independent third-party do it instead.