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Erik Hoekstra

Hoekstra

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa -- Dordt College officials are celebrating a judge's order stopping the enforcement of a federal health care mandate at the Christian school as a win for religious freedom.

U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett on Tuesday issued a permanent injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from enforcing the 2011 mandate requiring employers, regardless of their religious or moral beliefs, to provide health insurance coverage for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization.

Bennett's order ends a five-year legal challenge and allows Dordt to continue to practice its religious freedom, said Erik Hoekstra, president of the Sioux Center college.

"This final resolution provides Dordt with the continued freedom we have always enjoyed -- specifically, to decide on the basis of our deeply held religious beliefs the type and scope of covered services within the health plan we offer to our employees," Hoekstra said in a news release.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sioux City in 2013, Dordt and Cornerstone University, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had argued that the requirement to provide coverage of the morning-after or week-after pills, which many Christians consider to be abortion drugs, caused them to violate their religious beliefs, thus violating their religious freedoms.

"Under the HHS mandate, religious employers were given no real choice: they had to either comply and abandon their religious freedom or resist and pay severe fines for their faith. The district court in Iowa has rightly blocked enforcement of this mandate to protect the colleges' religious freedom," Gregory S. Baylor, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that advocates for religious rights, said in a news release. The ADF represented Dordt and Cornerstone.

In addition to granting the permanent injunction, Bennett ruled that the mandate violated federal law, a point conceded by the HHS.

In 2014, Bennett issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the mandate, a ruling later upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the mandate was an unjust burden to religiously affiliated employers by forcing them to provide insurance coverage of certain contraceptives, even though they can opt out of directly paying for it.

"While this case was about health care coverage, we took this journey to assert our contention about religious expression more generally, believing that if we allowed government to over-assert in this area now, any future over-assertions in other areas would be more difficult to defend without this result," Hoekstra said.

Bennett's ruling was similar to orders issued recently in favor of Christian universities in Oklahoma, Indiana and California, Baylor said. Other lawsuits challenging the mandate remain in litigation.

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