As a Christian college in Western Pennsylvania faces a deadline for committing to a student health-insurance plan for the coming academic year, a federal judge has agreed to revive its case challenging Obamacare.
Like many other organizations with a strong religious bent, Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., had sued the Obama administration after the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because it objects to the statute’s mandate requiring the coverage of certain types of contraception by health insurance plans.
U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti of the Western District of Pennsylvania had dismissed the school’s case in March, holding that the suit wasn’t yet ripe. She reversed herself this week.
"The crux of Geneva’s concerns appear to be that the proposed rules do not moot the issues it raised in the complaint, and it must finalize its student health-insurance plan before August 1, 2013," Conti said, referring to the rules proposed in February that would ostensibly accommodate organizations like Geneva that don’t fit the ACA’s definition of a "religious employer," but still object to providing contraceptives on religious grounds.
"Defendants did not indicate that the final rules will be implemented in time for Geneva to meet that deadline," Conti said in Geneva College v. Sebelius. "To the extent that those new facts impact the court’s previous conclusions, the court will reconsider whether Geneva’s claims are now ripe for judicial review."
Conti applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s ripeness test from Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner as amended by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1991 in Step-Saver Data Systems v. Wyse Technology.
On the first prong of that test, regarding the adversity of the parties’ interests, Conti noted that, first, "Geneva maintains its objection to the proposed rules on the basis that, in the proposed rules’ current form, defendants took a ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach to accommodating those with religious objections to the mandate … [and] second, Geneva is suffering real and immediate harm now that it is in the process of contracting for its student health-insurance plan."
The proposed rules suggest excluding from the mandate nonprofit organizations that describe themselves as being religious and oppose providing coverage for the contraceptive services required due to religious reasons as long as it self-certifies that it satisfies those three criteria, according to the opinion. The deadline for publishing the final rules is August 1, Conti said.
"As articulated by Geneva’s president, the college is now being forced to choose — in a very short timeframe — between making available student health insurance that remains objectionable despite the proposed rules, and forgoing student health insurance altogether in response to the final rules that will be imposed beginning on August 1, 2013," Conti said.
She held that, given that the school has to make a decision based on the current mandate that is at odds with its beliefs, the adversity prong is satisfied.
Similarly, she held that the second prong, regarding the conclusiveness of the judgment, weighed in favor of ripeness.
On that element, Conti, again, noted the timing of Geneva’s situation.
"In light of the timeframe set forth in the proposed rules which indicate that a final rule on the accommodations may not be adopted until August 1, 2013, Geneva is potentially without any ‘final’ guidance (as defendants would define it) until the very day it is expected to have a student health-insurance plan in place — a process that, in reality, can take many months," Conti said.
She likened Geneva’s situation to the one in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 opinion in Bell v. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, saying, "Judicial determination of Geneva’s claims at the present time will yield a conclusive result, if Geneva succeeds on the merits, insofar as it will prevent defendants from imposing a severe hardship on Geneva."
The third prong, too, went in favor of ripeness, Conti held, because the judgment will provide practical help or utility.
"Because defendants failed to build sufficient lead time into their rulemaking for entities like Geneva whose plan years begin on August 1, 2013, Geneva is now making critical decisions about its student health plan and will continue to suffer real hardship absent a court ruling," she said.
Conti let survive Geneva’s claims that the administration violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act. She granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the allegations that they violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the free speech clause of the First Amendment, and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Allison Price, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which represented the government, declined to comment on the opinion.
Bradley Tupi of Tucker Arensberg in Pittsburgh represented Geneva and couldn’t be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 17-page opinion in Geneva College v. Sebelius, PICS No. 13-1417, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •