High court to hear GuideStone abortion mandate appeal
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the appeal means the ministries will continue to be protected from sanctions until at least June 2016 when a final ruling is expected.
"We are thankful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear these cases," GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said. "We look forward to the opportunity to present our case and are praying that the justices will recognize and once again protect the religious liberty of ministry organizations to operate their benefit plans in accordance with their beliefs."
GuideStone General Counsel Harold R. Loftin Jr. stated, "We trust the court will provide a fair hearing of our arguments early in 2016 and look forward to the resolution of the case."
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed hope the high court would rule in favor of religious freedom.
"It is sad that we have had to spend so much of the last several years fighting for the most basic of religious liberty protections, but the Supreme Court has the opportunity to defend the consciences of millions of Americans in what is sure to be a crucial case in the preservation of religious liberty," Moore said in a written statement. "A government that can violate the consciences of some can easily attempt to violate the conscience of anyone.
"My prayer is that the Supreme Court will intervene in this administration's cavalier disregard for soul freedom that forces a decision between obedience to God and compliance with a regulatory state."
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 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The 10th Circuit 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.
Lawyers will present their arguments to the Supreme Court in the first few months of 2016, and the court is expected to rule on the case by the end of June.
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 10th Circuit. That appellate court 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 10th Circuit, in a highly unusual move, sharply criticized the court decision that ruled against GuideStone and convened a vote of the entire 10th 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.