By Roy Hauhurst, GuideStone Financial Resources
DALLAS — The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 6 agreed to hear appeals by several ministries, including GuideStone, to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that would require certain ministries served by GuideStone to provide abortion-causing drugs and devices or face crippling penalties.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal means that ministries continue to be protected from sanctions until at least June 2016, when a final ruling is rendered.
The announcement is welcomed news, said GuideStone General Counsel Harold R. Loftin Jr.
“We are grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear our appeal,” Loftin said. “We trust the Court will provide a fair hearing of our arguments early in 2016 and look forward to the resolution of the case.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case was expected by legal observers after the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September in favor of a group of ministries seeking relief from the mandate. The Eighth Circuit’s decision broke with decisions by most other circuit courts, including a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against GuideStone in its case.
GuideStone and its co-plaintiffs Truett-McConnell College and Reaching Souls International filed an appeal to the Supreme Court alongside the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic ministry.
GuideStone, local churches and a very narrow class of other ministries are exempt from the mandate and its penalties. But hundreds of evangelical Christian ministries that rely on GuideStone for their health benefits are not exempt and must comply with the government’s system or pay enormous fines.
Attorneys will present their arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court in the first few months of 2016, and the Court is expected to rule on the case by the end of June 2016.
In the case, GuideStone v. Burwell, an Oklahoma federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in December 2013 against the government’s enforcement of the mandate and penalties for ministries in GuideStone’s health plans. The government appealed that case in 2014 to the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit ruled in July 2015 that the ministries must comply with the mandate or face the penalties, but agreed to let the preliminary injunction stay in place until the appeal was decided by the Supreme Court.
In September, five judges on the full Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a highly unusual move, sharply criticized the court decision that ruled against GuideStone and convened a vote of the entire Tenth Circuit judges to reconsider the panel’s 2-1 decision. That vote fell one vote short, but displayed vividly the sharp divide among judges over the mandate.
GuideStone is represented by leading religious liberty and constitutional law scholars. The case was one of almost 90 lawsuits brought against the abortion-drug mandate.