PITTSBURGH — A federal judge has reinstated a lawsuit filed by a Christian college challenging looming federal health care regulations that would require its student and employee health benefits plans to cover birth control like the morning-after pill.
The lawsuit filed last year by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian civil rights group, on behalf of Geneva College was dismissed when a judge agreed with the Justice Department that the school wasn't suffering immediate harm, because federal officials had promised the regulations would be changed to exempt such institutions from parts of the law they found morally objectionable.
But U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti reinstated much of the lawsuit in a 17-page ruling issued Wednesday. The school contends it must soon decide whether to drop its student health insurance plan before the final government rules are due in August.
"All Americans, including job creators and providers, should be free to live according to their faith rather than be forced into violating their own consciences," Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement praising the ruling. Allowing the lawsuit to go forward will "ensure that the government doesn't punish people of faith for making decisions consistent with that faith."
The Justice Department attorney defending the regulations referred comment to a spokeswoman, Allison Price, who declined to comment.
In filing the lawsuit last year, Geneva officials argued that requiring the school to offer birth control coverage that includes the morning-after pill is "directly at odds" with its religious values, including the Bible's Sixth Commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Murder."
Drugs like Plan B prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg. According to the medical definition, pregnancy doesn't begin until a fertilized egg implants itself into the wall of the uterus. Still, some critics, including ADF, say Plan B is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it may also be able to prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, a contention that many scientists say has been discredited.
An attorney for the ADF said the school's concerns remain despite litigation over the morning-after pill that spawned a ruling by a federal judge in New York, who has ordered drug stores to sell the morning-after pill and generic equivalents over the counter to women of any age.
ADF attorney Gregory Baylor said it's unclear if the New York ruling will stand, and even if it does, it might not go into effect while it is appealed. Geneva's lawsuit also targets ella — also known as the week-after pill. Finally, Baylor says even if Plan B winds up being permanently available over the counter, doctors can sometimes still write prescriptions for such drugs, meaning insurance would cover them.
The school in Beaver Falls was founded by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
Geneva wants the judge to rule that the regulations violate federal law and the First Amendment rights of the college and similar faith-based or church-related groups. It also seeks an order exempting the school from complying with the birth control rule in the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
The suit comes amid national controversy that erupted this year when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups protested the rule that required church-affiliated universities, hospitals and nonprofits to include birth control without co-pays or premiums in their insurance plans.
Their opposition led President Barack Obama to modify the rule with changes that shift the burden from religious organizations to insurance companies, a solution that did little to satisfy the opposition.
Similar lawsuits by other like-minded organizations in several other states have been dismissed because those judges, too, decided that the regulations don't yet harm those institutions.
But Conti agreed with Geneva that the regulations are now affecting the school because it must notify students by May 13 whether they'll be dropped from the school's health coverage, and because the school must make that decision before the government must publish its final rules on the matter in August.
"The new facts set forth by Geneva illustrate that is must decide now whether to continue providing a student health insurance plan and it must make that decision in advance of defendants' Aug. 1, 2013 deadline to publish final rules," the judge wrote. "With the contingency thus removed, Geneva is now suffering a real and immediate harm that his ripe for adjudication."