Unlike ‘Hobby Lobby,’ Christian school won’t have to pay fines for noncompliance
Geneva College isn’t “complicit” in providing abortion drugs for students and employees by telling the government it won’t pay for them in its health plan, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week.
The appeals court overturned a district court ruling that found “self-certification” by the Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the school, said in a statement Wednesday it was “seriously considering” appealing the ruling.
The crux of the dispute lies in whether Geneva College “triggers, facilitates, and makes [it] complicit in the provision” of abortion drugs by its insurance company when it registers its religious objections with the government.
The appeals court decision, written by Judge Marjorie Rendell, distinguishes the case from the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, where a for-profit corporation run by an evangelical family was facing the choice of providing health coverage that includes abortion drugs or paying “substantial fines.”
Geneva College, by contrast, is “not faced with a ‘provide’ or ‘pay’ dilemma because they have a third option—notification pursuant to the accommodation—to avoid both providing contraceptive coverage to their employees and facing penalties for noncompliance with the contraceptive coverage requirement,” Rendell wrote.
Self-certification does nothing to trigger abortion-drug coverage, Rendell said: “Federal law, rather than any involvement by the appellees in filling out or submitting the self-certification form, creates the obligation of the insurance issuers and third-party administrators to provide coverage for contraceptive services” under the Affordable Care Act.
Forcing the government itself to facilitate ‘spiritual development’?
Geneva College chooses to avoid complicity in abortion precisely through a “declaration that they will not be complicit in providing coverage” – the self-certification form, Rendell said. “Ultimately, the regulatory notice requirement does not necessitate any action that interferes with the appellees’ religious activities.”
The judge said the college was trying to exercise “a religious veto” against an insurance company’s legal requirement to provide contraceptive coverage.
Rendell used the hypothetical example of a man who takes time off work on a religious holiday but refuses to submit a “time-off request” because it would make him complicit in someone else working on that religious holiday, in violation of his beliefs.
The decision cites a Supreme Court precedent involving American Indian objections to the use of a Social Security number to get welfare benefits. The high court said in the Bowen decision: “Never to our knowledge has the Court interpreted the First Amendment to require the Government itself to behave in ways that the individual believes will further his or her spiritual development or that of his or her family.”
Rendell said the district court was “misguided” in accepting Geneva College’s claim that its self-certification was the “central cog” that enabled students and employees to get abortion drugs.
Because it has “dispelled the notion that the self-certification procedure is burdensome,” the appeals court “need not consider whether the burden is substantial” on the college, according to the opinion.
Rendell also said the judges wouldn’t consider whether self-certification was the “least restrictive means” of providing abortion drugs to women. That’s part of the legal standard known as strict scrutiny, which courts apply when considering infringements on constitutional rights.
“Geneva College simply wants to abide by the Christian faith it espouses and teaches instead of being forced into an unacceptable inconsistency by the government,” Alliance Defending Freedom said after the ruling. “The administration has no business punishing people of faith for making decisions consistent with that faith.”
Greg Piper is an assistant editor at The College Fix. (@GregPiper)
IMAGE: American Life League/Flickr