Two Baptist universities go to court over HHS mandate

By Michelle Bauman

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Two Baptist universities in Texas have joined scores of other institutions in filing a lawsuit against the federal contraception mandate, arguing that it infringes upon their free exercise of religion by forcing them to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

“While we are always reluctant to enter into lawsuits, the government has given us no choice,” said Dr. Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University.

In an Oct. 9 statement announcing the lawsuit, he explained that the federal contraception mandate is making the university choose whether to “violate our conscience or give in to the administration’s heavy-handed attack upon our religious freedom.”

“We will not comply with this unconstitutional mandate, and we plead with our government to respect the liberties given by God and enunciated in the Bill of Rights,” Sloan said.

On Oct. 9, Houston Baptist University joined East Texas Baptist University in filing a lawsuit challenging the mandate, which requires employers and universities to provide coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs at no charge.

While the Baptist universities do not oppose coverage of contraception generally, they have deep moral objections to those drugs included in the mandated coverage that can cause an early abortion. In particular, two drugs known as “Plan B” and “Ella” are described by the FDA as “contraceptives,” but they can end the life of an already-existing human embryo.

For following their religious beliefs and failing to adhere to the mandate’s demands, the universities would each be subject to more than $10 million per year in fines.

More than 30 lawsuits have now been filed by approximately 100 plaintiffs challenging the mandate and the threat that it poses to religious freedom.

Many of the plaintiffs have been Catholic institutions, including the Archdiocese of New York, the University of Notre Dame and Catholic Charities affiliates throughout the country.

However, numerous non-Catholic plaintiffs have filed suits as well, including Colorado Christian University, Louisiana College and Wheaton College, in addition to the states of Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

Several for-profit companies have also filed lawsuits, including multiple manufacturing companies, a medical case management group, and the national arts and crafts giant Hobby Lobby.

“Baptists have always advocated religious liberty, and religious liberty is what is at stake in this situation,” explained Dr. Samuel Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University.

He recalled the words of prominent Baptist preacher George W. Truett. “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.”

“We are rising today to ensure that religious liberty, the first freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, is protected and preserved,” Oliver said.
In February, Oliver testified about the mandate before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He explained that the regulation offends many Americans of various religious backgrounds because even among those that accept contraception, “there is wide agreement that abortion is wrong.”

He also warned of the “alarming” implications of the mandate for the future of religious freedom, asking, “If this administration can just decide that religious beliefs are less important than its chosen policy goals, what can’t it do?”

The universities are being represented in their lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, aided by Yetter Coleman LLP.

“Baptists in America, by virtue of their history, are particularly sensitive to coercive government actions that infringe on religious liberty,” explained Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund.

He noted that Roger Williams, the first Baptist leader in America, was forced to “flee Massachusetts and found a colony in Providence, Rhode Island, because his religious beliefs were not tolerated by the laws of Massachusetts.” 

“We shouldn’t have to fight for that same right today,” he said.

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