Exemption explored in Geneva College health mandate suit

Brian Bowling
| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit challenging a government health mandate to file briefs on whether a private college in Beaver Falls would be exempted from the mandate by a grandfather clause.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti said such a clause would affect Geneva College's ability to challenge the law since grandfathering would mean it doesn't have to comply with the mandate that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control, including so-called morning-after drugs.

The college, Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co. in Cranberry, two of its owners, Wayne L. Helper and Carrie E. Kolesar, and WLH Enterprises, Helper's Venango County sawmill business, claim the mandate violates their right to freedom of religion.

The college is affiliated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Helper and Kolesar say they operate the lumber company and sawmill in adherence with Catholic Church teachings.

Conti held a hearing on Wednesday on the government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Bradley Humphreys, a Justice Department lawyer, argued that Conti should dismiss the college's claims because the government has agreed not to enforce the regulations against religious nonprofit employers while it rewrites the regulation.

“It's hard to see how Geneva College is being injured by regulations that aren't being enforced,” he said.

He argued that the judge should dismiss the private, for-profit companies' claims because the case law is clear that for-profit businesses can't exercise religion and their owners can't use their religion to exempt themselves from labor laws.

Matt Bowman, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that case law supports the right of for-profit employers to exercise religion. The fund, a conservative Christian group, is representing the college and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

He said the college has standing to challenge the law for several reasons, one of which is the government's uncertainty about if or when the college would have to comply with the mandate.

“(The government) can't show that it would be absolutely clear that Geneva College's conscience would be protected,” Bowman said.

Bowman and Humphreys weren't certain whether the college qualifies for the grandfather clause or whether the judge has the authority to declare that it is covered.

Conti took the motion under advisement and ordered both sides to submit briefs before Dec. 3.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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