Suit Over Contraception Mandate Is Not Yet Ripe

     (CN) – A Roman Catholic college cannot challenge an aspect of health care reform that requires employers to cover contraceptive products, a federal judge ruled, noting that the government is trying to address religious objections.
     Though President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010, employers do not have to comply with the so-called contraception mandate until the safe-harbor period expires in August 2013.
     The government announced earlier this year that it would amend the regulation to accommodate objections to that provision from religious groups.
     Left unchanged, the mandate requires employers to offer group health-insurance plans that cover preventive care for women, including sterilization procedures, emergency oral contraception and counseling, without a copayment. A current exemption covers only religious employers who primarily hire and serve members of one religious faith and exist to promote religious values.
     Belmont Abbey College, a private Benedictine college in North Carolina, says it would not meet the criteria for an exemption because it employs and serves many people who do not share its religious values.
     It says the law unconstitutionally requires it to subsidize contraception and sterilization procedures for its employees.
     Sponsoring contraception and sterilization services “would violate its strongly held religious beliefs” that contraception and abortion are “grave sins,” according to the college’s 2011 complaint.
     Belmont says that compelling it to cover such services infringe on its First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
     U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed the complaint last week, noting that the college had not been actually harmed by the mandate.
     Since the government may modify the mandate to accommodate the concerns of nonexempt religious employers, Belmont’s current case is premature, Boasberg said.
     The school does not qualify for the religious-employer exemption in its current form, and the safe-harbor provision merely delays enforcement of the challenged rules by one year, but injury claims are still too speculative to confer standing, given the government’s intention to amend the rules, the decision states.
     Belmont cannot yet demonstrate it has been harmed by the mandate, Boasberg said.
     “Because an amendment to the final rule that may vitiate the threatened injury is not only promised but underway, the injuries alleged by plaintiff are not ‘certainly impending,'” the decision states.
     If the government fails to amend the mandate by the time the safe harbor lapses, Belmont may renew its challenge to the rule at that time, the judge found.
     “At the end of the day, the court offers no opinion on the merits of the current contraception-coverage regulations or any proposed future ones,” Boasberg wrote. “If plaintiff is displeased by the ultimate regulations, it may certainly renew its suit at that time. All the court holds here is that Belmont has no basis to proceed now.”

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