Tampa, Fla. — A federal judge in Florida has granted Ave Maria University's motion for a preliminary injunction to keep the Catholic university from being forced to follow the latest procedures that nonexempt religious employers must use to opt out of the contraceptive mandate.
The ruling Tuesday from Judge James S. Moody of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida came as Ave Maria was days away from having to pay fines to the government for noncompliance.
The university's employee health insurance plan is set to be renewed Nov. 1, which is when fines would have kicked in, at $1,000 a day per enrollee in an employer's health plan.
Moody said his injunction would remain in place pending resolution of an appeal filed by the Eternal Word Television Network with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.
A three-judge panel of the circuit court issued an order June 30 barring enforcement of the mandate pending the outcome of the network's appeal to the full court.
Moody said the 11th Circuit panel's holding in the EWTN case "supported the issuance of a preliminary junction" for Ave Maria.
"This is a significant victory," said Jim Towey, the university's president. "It is the first federal court case since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case and the subsequent issuance of the so-called 'augmented' regulations by the Obama administration."
But "while this victory is significant, the battle is far from over," he said in a blog post.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requires nearly all employers to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs for all employees in company health plans. It includes a narrow exemption for religious employers that fit certain criteria.
To opt out, nonexempt religious employers must follow a procedure to inform the government of its religious objections to the mandated coverage. The government in turn informs a third party -- such as the employer's insurer or the administrator of its plan -- that it must provide the coverage at no cost to the employee.
Employers who are not exempt, like Ave Maria University in Florida, had been required to fill out a self-certification form -- known as EBSA Form 700 -- to direct a third party, usually the manager of an employer's health plan, to provide the contested coverage.
Many religious employers that have sued over the mandate argue that even filling out Form 700 makes them complicit in providing coverage they find objectionable.
So last August, the Obama administration issued what Towey called "augmented" rules, which religious employers still find objectionable.
Under the new procedure, an eligible organization must advise HHS in writing of its religious objection to contraception coverage.
HHS itself will then notify the insurer for a health plan, or the Department of Labor will notify the third-party administrator for a self-insured plan, that the organization objects to providing contraception coverage. The insurer or third-party administrator must provide the coverage at no cost to the employee.
"After dozens of court rulings, the government still doesn't seem to get that it can't force faith institutions to violate their beliefs," said Eric Baxter, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The law firm represents Ave Maria and dozens of religious employers in their HHS suits.
"Fortunately, the courts continue to see through the government's attempts to disguise the mandate's religious coercion," said Baxter. "We congratulate Ave Maria for its courage, even under the threat of crippling fines."