March 2020 Church & State | People & Events

A federal court in January handed down an important ruling in a case sponsored by Americans United and its allies that seeks to protect access to birth control for students and staff at the University of Notre Dame.

The case, Irish 4 Reproductive Health v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was filed in the summer of 2018 after Notre Dame officials cited religious objections in announcing that the school would end students’ and faculty’s coverage for certain forms of birth control – even though this violates the Affordable Care Act.

It came to light that Notre Dame had dropped the coverage as the result of a secret settlement agreement between the Trump administration and university officials. AU’s lawsuit challenges that arrangement and rules issued by the administration that allow many employers and universities to cite religion to take birth control coverage away from employees and students.

Several lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce access to birth control are moving through the courts, but this is the only case representing people who’ve lost access. (AU and its allies are representing several individual students and a student group, Irish 4 Reproductive Health, which works to advance reproductive justice at the university and in the surrounding community.)

When the case was argued in court, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser reminded the nation of what’s at stake.

“No one – not bosses, universities or the government – should be able to impose their religious beliefs on anyone else, especially when doing so would harm people’s health,” Laser said. “Students and families depend on affordable access to birth control. We won’t allow the Trump administration and its backroom deals with the University of Notre Dame to undermine women’s reproductive freedom and weapon­ize religious freedom. We are ready to fight in court today and every day to protect those fundamental freedoms.”

The Trump administration tried to quash the lawsuit, but on Jan. 16, U.S. District Judge Philip P. Simon of the Northern District of Indiana ruled that the case may go forward.

Simon wrote that the Trump administration’s argument that the settlement agreement could not be challenged in court is “a little hard to swallow,” adding, “It is especially disturbing to me that the Federal Defendants have purported to bind future administrations, as well as future faculty, staff, and students at Notre Dame, by entering into such a broad Settlement Agreement that exempts Notre Dame from ‘the Regulations or any materially similar regulation or agency policy,’ and provides that no penalties will be assessed for noncompliance with ‘any law or regulation’ requiring contraceptive coverage.”

AU brought the suit along with the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the Center for Reproductive Rights and the law firm of Fried Frank.

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of NWLC, issued a statement remarking, “Today’s ruling sends a clear message to the Trump-Pence Administration that it cannot deny birth control coverage by entering into backroom deals or issuing unlawful rules. The Administration is once again trying to circum­vent the law, and it must end. This is a win not only for Notre Dame students, but for everyone seeking access to birth control. We will keep fighting until every person across the country has the birth control coverage guaranteed to them by law, no matter where they work or go to school.”