2 Baptist universities join legal fight against abortion mandate

HOUSTON (BP) -- Underscoring once again it's not a Catholic-only issue, two Baptist colleges have filed suit against the Obama administration's abortion/contraceptive mandate, saying they're standing up for what Baptists long have defended -- religious freedom.

The Oct. 9 lawsuit by Houston Baptist University and East Texas Baptist University is the 33rd suit against the mandate, which requires employers to provide employee health insurance that covers contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. The latter drugs often are labeled "morning-after" or "week-after" pills and come under brand names such as Plan B and ella, and can act after fertilization and even after implantation, thereby causing a chemical abortion. Churches are exempt from the mandate, but religious organizations -- such as Christian colleges, hospitals and businesses -- are not.

"Baptists have always advocated religious liberty, and religious liberty is what is at stake in this situation."

-- ETBU president

Samuel Oliver

The mandate was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August 2011 and went into effect in August of this year, although HHS gave nonprofit religious organizations another year -- until August 2013 -- to comply. The new health care law signed by President Obama opened the door for the mandate. The law itself does not require coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, although it did give HHS the authority to determine what is and is not covered under the new law, often dubbed "Obamacare." The Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this year but did not deal with the issue raised by the mandate lawsuits.

The list of businesses and organizations suing to overturn the mandate has grown in recent weeks, with arts and crafts company Hobby Lobby and Christian publisher Tyndale House joining the ranks.

Another Baptist school, Louisiana College, filed suit in February.

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist in the suit, filed in a federal court in Texas. The schools say the mandate violates their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of religion and speech.

"The Universities' religious beliefs forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion," the suit says. "... The government's Mandate unconstitutionally coerces the Universities to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties."

Forcing the university to "pay a fine" for the "privilege of practicing one's religion or controlling one's own speech is un-American, unprecedented, and flagrantly unconstitutional," the suit states.

The universities don't have a problem with covering all contraceptives, only those that can cause chemical abortions, the suit says. The schools "consider the prevention by artificial means of the implantation of a human embryo to be an abortion," and they affirm "traditional Christian teachings on the sanctity of life," the suit states.

Samuel Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University, said Baptists have a history of standing up for religious freedom.

"Baptists have always advocated religious liberty, and religious liberty is what is at stake in this situation," Oliver said. "As the famous Baptist preacher George W. Truett once remarked, '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."

Said Houston Baptist President Robert Sloan, "While we are always reluctant to enter into lawsuits, the government has given us no choice. Either we 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."

The lawsuit says the law and the government have "provided thousands of exemptions" to businesses but that the government refuses to exempt religious organizations from the mandate. For example, businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the health care law and therefore exempt from the mandate. Businesses also had the option of "grandfathering" in their previous health care plans and thereby avoid many of the new law's requirements, such as the mandate.

"[T]he government refuses to give the same level of accommodation to groups exercising their fundamental First Amendment freedoms," the suit states. "... The Mandate can be interpreted as nothing other than a deliberate attack by the government on the religious beliefs of the Universities and millions of other Americans."

The HHS mandate provides an exemption for churches and church-like bodies provided they are nonprofit and meet all four of the following criteria: 1) "The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization"; 2) "The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization"; 3) "The organization serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization"; and 4) The organization is a church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, a convention or association of churches, or is an exclusively religious activity of a religious order, under Internal Revenue Code 6033(a)(1) and (a)(3)(A)."

Although the universities only employ Christians, they don't fit the definition of a church as set forth by the criteria.


Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).