There are 41 lawsuits with more than 110 plaintiffs filed against the Affordable Health Care Act, representing hospitals, universities, businesses, schools, and individuals, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Ave Maria University and about 30 other religious institutions across the nation that have filed lawsuits against the Affordable Health Care Act’s contraception mandate are intensifying the battle in 2013, focusing first on fighting “safe harbor.”
It means the government exempts them from the law’s requirement that employers provide free birth control as part of their health plans until August. In the interim, the aim is for government and religious institutions to hammer out a solution that will resolve religious objections.
But Ave Maria President Jim Towey said safe harbor hurts, because it leaves the university in limbo.
He said university officials have been interviewing for six faculty positions and they don’t know what to tell candidates when they ask about future health care coverage. It also causes budgetary uncertainty and hurts employee morale because they don’t know what kind of health care they will have in 2014 — or if they will have any at all.
Other religious institutions agree safe harbor status doesn’t work as a temporary reprieve. Many, including Ave Maria, have challenged safe harbor and their cause appears to be gaining legal momentum. On Friday, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will be the first appeals court to consider whether the status adequately protects religious employers.
The appeal asks the court to reinstate a lawsuit filed by Wheaton and Belmont Abbey colleges, after a trial court held the lawsuit was premature because of the protection provided by safe harbor.
In a landmark ruling Dec. 5, a federal judge decided a lawsuit filed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York could proceed. He ruled safe harbor does not mean the plaintiffs are protected.
The judge stated: “There is no ‘Trust us changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution’” and holding off on taking action in the hope the government and religious institutions can arrive at a solution is “ignoring the speeding train that is coming toward plaintiffs in the hope that it will stop.”
The safe harbor designation applies only to nonprofits, said Emily Hardman, an attorney and spokeswoman for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, conservative law firm that is prosecuting eight lawsuits against the health care act.
The plaintiffs include Ave Maria, Wheaton and Belmont Abbey colleges, the Eternal Word Television Network, and others.
There are 41 lawsuits total filed in the U.S. against the health care act, often dubbed “Obamacare,” but 11 are from private, for-profit businesses, not religious entities, Hardman said.
The largest business is Hobby Lobby Stores, an Oklahoma-based retail chain with 525 stores. The company, owned by a Christian family, also is represented by the fund. The lawsuit was dismissed, and the owners are appealing. If that doesn’t work, the chain will start incurring penalties of up to $1.3 million per day on Jan. 1, Hardman said.
Towey, who also is former director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has vowed not to carry out the health care act. If legal challenges fail, the university will face $17 million in penalties in 2014, Hardman said. Ave Maria is a private Catholic university 17 miles east of Naples, with 816 students and about 130 employees. The school has 21 majors, two pre-professional programs and a law school.
“We are not going to comply with this law,” he said. “We are going to do everything possible to protect the health insurance needs of employees.”
Towey has appointed a committee of faculty and administrative staff to monitor the situation and prepare a response to the full implementation of Obamacare.
“One of the options is, we cease providing health insurance for our employees,” Towey said. “We are looking at options if that has to happen.”