Notre Dame students sue school, White House over birth control policy

(Reuters) - Students at the University of Notre Dame on Tuesday sued the Indiana school and the Trump administration over a move this year to drop coverage for some forms of birth control from the university’s health insurance plan, citing religious objections.

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator in support of contraceptive rights chants outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

The suit touches on two hot-button issues that have been key parts of President Donald Trump’s agenda - scaling back the 2010 U.S. healthcare reform law known as Obamacare and promoting the rights of organizations with religious affiliations. Notre Dame was founded by a Roman Catholic religious order, and Catholic teaching prohibits most forms of birth control.

The lawsuit contends that an October 2017 settlement between the Trump administration and the school violates terms of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide health insurance policies that offer access to contraception and sterilization.

The settlement ended a federal investigation into whether some 70 U.S. institutions, including Notre Dame, were complying with Obamacare.

Obamacare contained an exception allowing churches to deny contraception coverage if offering it went against their religious teaching, and instead offered coverage through government-funded administrators.

In a move that pleased Trump’s conservative Christian supporters, the White House in October broadened that exception, allowing it to apply to a broader range of businesses and institutions, including schools such as Notre Dame.

Following that decision, Notre Dame said its healthcare plan for students, employees and dependents would no longer work with an administrator to offer overall contraceptive coverage but would provide birth control pills directly through its plan.

As a result, people covered by the school would no longer have access to intra-uterine devices and emergency contraceptives, previously covered through the administrator.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in South Bend, Indiana, where the school is located, asks the court to block the school from enforcing the new policy. Notre Dame said it would seek to have the suit dismissed.

The students who filed the lawsuit worked with a coalition of women’s rights and groups promoting secularism that have accused Notre Dame of infringing women’s rights.

“We are exposing this deceptive tactic and taking the administration and Notre Dame to court to stop them from chipping away at our right to control our bodies and lives,” Fatima Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement. “People deserve birth control coverage, no matter where they work or go to school.”

The lawsuit said Notre Dame would strip coverage from 17,000 employees, students and their families. But university spokesman Paul Browne in a statement said that assertion was false.

The 176-year-old school has more than 18,000 students and faculty but only 8,320 of them are insured through Notre Dame, including 705 students, Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said in an email to Reuters. The school will seek to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Richard Katskee, a legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the important thing is that people being denied healthcare.

Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Trott