* Evangelical college filed early lawsuit against contraception mandate
* Political, legal battle over insurance coverage heats up
By Stephanie Simon
LAKEWOOD, Colo., Feb 24 (Reuters) - There was ambivalence, and a fair bit of bewilderment, here on the cozy campus of Colorado Christian University when school administrators sued the federal government just before Christmas to block an obscure insurance regulation.
Not yet a topic of public debate, the regulation required all insurance plans, even those sponsored by religious institutions, to provide free birth control - along with free blood-pressure screenings, vaccinations and other preventive services.
Some students and faculty were not so sure this mandate was bad. It was troubling, perhaps, for Catholic colleges since their church considers artificial contraception immoral. But Colorado Christian is an evangelical institution, and many on campus had no problem with birth control. They used it. Their health plan covered it.
They weren't sure this was their fight.
"I must say, at the start I had some reservations about the suit," said Stan Dyck, an American history professor.
But in the two months since Colorado Christian filed its lawsuit - a passionate document that brands the insurance mandate "un-American, unprecedented, and flagrantly unconstitutional" - the issue has burst to the forefront of American political debate.
Seven states, a TV network and at least three other colleges have filed lawsuits. Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and Orthodox Jews have joined the protests. The mandate has become a rallying cry for Republican presidential candidates, who have accused the Obama administration of declaring war on religion.
The administration has defended its approach as a sensible balance that protects religious freedom while promoting women's health.
On the snowy campus outside Denver, however, a quiet pride in fighting the mandate has taken hold - along with a growing sense of solidarity with fellow litigators of all faiths.
The crescendo of opposition "tells me that we're part of a movement that sees this as a violation of religious freedom," said Dyck.
People of faith are showing "that we're all on the same team," said theology major Josh Roman, 20. "It's real important that every branch step forward."
Colorado Christian University's immediate concern is that the mandate requires insurance plans to provide free access to all FDA-approved contraception, including pills such as Plan B that can prevent pregnancy up to several days after unprotected sex by blocking a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. Many students and faculty here consider that an abortion and find it abhorrent.
Administrators are adamant that it would compromise their mission as protectors and promoters of a biblical world view to allow their university insurance plan to include the drugs.
"We're a small school, but we take the middle part of our name very seriously," said university counsel Steve Miller. "Our objective is teaching kids about the truth of the Bible and the sanctity of life. ... Essentially, the federal government is forcing us to violate our religious beliefs."
Before the university filed suit on Dec. 21, Miller scrutinized the fine print of its insurance plan. To his horror, he found that it covered not just the morning-after pill, but surgical abortions. He said administrators had been assured years ago that abortion wasn't covered; he ordered the insurer to strike it immediately.
Miller says the university's years of inadvertently covering abortion do not diminish its moral standing as it fights the mandate, with the help of lawyers for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Ray Mitsch, an associate professor of psychology, agrees.
"I was mildly surprised," he said. "But I suspect this is not unique to CCU. I bet everybody's looking at their policies now and saying, 'Oh, crap!' "
The Colorado Christian lawsuit, like other recent filings, asserts that the government has no compelling reason to mandate free contraception.
The lawsuit also points out that the Obama administration has granted hundreds of health insurance waivers to all sorts of organizations, from Teamsters unions to Cracker Barrel restaurants to Captain Elliot's Party Boats, a small business in Houston, Texas. The waivers allow these employers to continue offering low-budget health plans that don't provide free preventive care or other required benefits.
Most waivers are generally good for just a few years, until other parts of President Barack Obama's health care law take effect and workers can acquire comprehensive, subsidized insurance. But the administration also has granted a few long-term waivers; for instance, churches themselves don't have to provide contraceptive coverage, but church-affiliated institutions such as colleges do.
The existence of such waivers "undermines the government's claim that it has an incredibly important interest in providing contraception for free," said Gregory Baylor, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who represents several other colleges considering legal action.
In its first response to the barrage of lawsuits -- a motion to dismiss filed last week -- the Department of Health and Human Services countered that contraceptive access is essential to protecting "the health of individual Americans and society at large." The department argued that free preventive care will ultimately save the nation money on health care and make Americans "more productive with fewer sick days."
The administration also argues that its opponents have no standing to sue now because the mandate won't take effect for religious institutions until at least Aug. 1, 2013.
At Colorado Christian, some students and faculty still find it hard to get worked up about the lawsuit. "I'm kind of neutral," said science professor Christa Koval. "I stay down here and teach my chemistry and don't get involved."
But faith is woven deeply into campus life. All students must attend chapel twice a week. They must pledge to abstain from alcohol and premarital sex. In the science wing, posters touting graduate studies in immunology hang next to a flier seeking volunteers to teach Bible in Moldova.
So many here are closely watching the legal and political battles - and with pride in their university's role. "If we're really living out our faith," said sophomore Hadley Moore, "we have to uphold that in all aspects of our life." (Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Doina Chiacu)