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GRAND RAPIDS (Detroit Free Press) -- Cornerstone University, a religious-based school in Grand Rapids, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking an exemption to a mandate requiring it to offer employee medical insurance that covers drugs that can induce abortion.

"This filing is first and foremost an effort to preserve and protect our religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment," Cornerstone President Joseph Stowell wrote in an email Wednesday to donors and alumni. "Given our conviction that life begins at conception and our commitment to the sanctity of life, we find the mandate to provide our faculty, staff, and students with insurance that provides access to abortion-inducing pills unacceptable. The government should not be able to force us to buy or provide insurance that gives access to morally objectionable drugs, devices, and services that violate our biblical convictions."

Stowell, through his spokeswoman, declined a request for an interview. Cornerstone provided the e-mail he sent to the Free Press.

Cornerstone is the first Michigan university to file such a suit. It joined Iowa-based Dordt College in filing the suit. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which has filed a number of similar suits, is representing the two colleges at no cost to them.

Two Michigan family-run companies, Midwest Fastener and Trijicon, have filed similar suits. There are more than 70 similar suits in various stages in various courts across the nation.

At issue are contraceptives known as morning-after drugs.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration redefined who was considered a "religious employer" to allow universities and faith based hospitals to join churches in the exemption to the rule that they provide coverage for such drugs. In those cases, the insurance companies will pay for the contraceptives instead of the organization.

"Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work," Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement then.

However, religious groups said the exemption doesn't go far enough.

"Defendants have offered entities like the schools a so-called 'accommodation' of their religious beliefs and practices," Cornerstone's suit says. "However the accommodation fails. It still conscripts the schools in the government's scheme, forcing the schools to obtain an insurer or third-party claims administrator and submit a form that specifically causes that insurer or third-party administrator to arrange payment for objectionable drugs, so that such coverage will apply to the schools' own employees as a direct consequence of their employment with the schools and of their participation in the health insurance benefits the schools provide them.'"

Cornerstone's current insurance plan covers certain kinds of contraceptives, Stowell said in his e-mail.

"The employee health insurance plan we offer covers most contraceptives, but we have chosen, for religious reasons, to exclude those contraceptives that sometimes cause early abortions," he wrote. "Our healthcare plan currently does not cover these types of potentially abortion-inducing drugs. A temporary 'safe harbor' permits this. If we succeed in the litigation, we will continue to offer a healthcare plan that does not facilitate access to abortifacient drugs, even after the expiration of the temporary safe harbor."

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com

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