Wheaton College has filed a lawsuit alongside the Catholic University of America in the D.C. district court opposing the Health and Human Services (HHS) “preventive services” mandate. Administrators of the leading evangelical liberal arts institution located in Illinois contend the mandate forces both institutions to violate their deeply held religious beliefs by providing access to abortion-causing drugs or paying severe fines.
“Wheaton College and other distinctively Christian institutions are faced with a clear and present threat to our religious liberty,” says Wheaton College president Dr. Philip Ryken. “Our first president, the abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, believed it was imperative to act in defense of freedom. In bringing this suit, we act in defense of freedom again.”
Not Just a Catholic Issue
In the early stages of the battle over the contraception mandate, coverage mostly focused on the protest from the Catholic Church, but a growing number of Protestant organizations have joined the fight. The Wheaton College alliance marks the first-ever partnership between Catholic and evangelical institutions to oppose the same regulation in the same court.
“This mandate is not just a Catholic issue — it threatens people of all faiths,” says Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the college in its suit. “Wheaton’s historic decision to join the fight alongside a Catholic institution shows the broad consensus that the mandate endangers everyone's religious liberty.”
The Becket Fund is providing pro bono legal representation on behalf of Wheaton. It states on the school’s web site, “Wheaton chose to work with The Becket Fund in part because of its clearly established track record as a non-partisan, non-sectarian law firm that has successfully defended the religious liberty of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and clients from other faith communities.”
According to the school’s community covenant, Wheaton’s religious convictions prevent it from providing its employees with access to abortifacient drugs. Through this lawsuit, the college contends it acts to preserve its religious liberty and the right to carry out its mission free from government coercion.
“As the president of the national university of the Catholic Church, I am happy to express solidarity with our evangelical brothers and sisters from Wheaton College as they challenge the HHS mandate,” said Catholic University president John Garvey. “Wheaton's lawsuit is another sign of how troubling many people of faith find the government's efforts to chip away at our first freedom.”
There are now 24 separate lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate, which is a regulation under the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare.” Catholic University filed suit on May 21, 2012.
"During the period for public comment, Wheaton and many other evangelical colleges and universities objected that this requirement violated their belief in the sanctity of human life,” Wheaton president Philip Ryken wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
In a conference call with reporters, Ryken said the penalties for not following the mandate “would amount to $1.4 million in fines annually for faculty and staff alone.”
Wheaton College is the fourth Protestant college to file suit against the HHS mandate. The Illinois institution joins Colorado Christian University, Geneva College, and Louisiana College.
Assertions of Political Motivation
The school that counts conservatives like evangelist Billy Graham and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert as alumni has some asserting the timing of the lawsuit was politically motivated, as the November general election is only a few months away.
“The timing of the lawsuit is not something we have chosen," Garvey said. "HHS has chosen to put these rules in effect and we’re crowded up against our own internal deadlines for accepting new students and renegotiating insurance contracts.”
A number of religious groups and institutions of higher education received a one-year extension to follow through with the mandate. School officials maintain internal technical issues with their insurance provider prevent the college from being illegible for that extension.
“Wheaton College is not a partisan institution,” said Ryken. “The effect of our lawsuit on the political process played no role at all in any our discussions with our board of trustees on the issue."
The Wheaton College Alumni Association reports some 43,000 living alumni. LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations at Wheaton College, told ReligionToday.com while a majority of alumni back the lawsuit, some objections were expressed about the litigation.
“A majority of the letters we received were positive, but some had questions about the lawsuit in regards to women’s health issues,” said Taylor. “In no way does the school oppose women’s rights.”
“Wheaton supports nine of the 10 preventative services required by the HHS mandate and provides comprehensive health coverage to all of its employees, women included,” states Wheaton’s Web site. “Our objection is to a service we do not presently provide, so there is no question here of taking away any choices or services from women in the Wheaton community (or elsewhere). On the contrary, filing this lawsuit is a principled way for Wheaton to continue to provide excellent health care to all its employees.”
Taylor said the school wrote appropriate officials, making its position known about the HHS mandate before filing the lawsuit.
“Most people understand the college made this decision reluctantly,” Taylor added. “But this was an issue of the school’s First Amendment rights.”
Conor McCarthy, a graduate of Wheaton College and a former staff writer for the online publication Gapers Block, stands behind his alma mater’s lawsuit.
“Wheaton College's decision to stand for its convictions and join Catholics in the fight against the HHS mandate is a bold statement in support of freedom of religion and choice, and will likely encourage others within the evangelical fold to speak out against a violent government overreach,” writes McCarthy. “As an alumnus, I support Wheaton's decision and hope that the Obama administration will take these lawsuits seriously and find a solution that will protect everyone.”
Russ Jones is a 25-year award-winning journalist and correspondent. He is co-publisher of various Christian news sites such as ChristianPress.com, OxfordFamily.com and a media consultant to a number of political and cause-oriented campaigns. He is also a freelance correspondent for the American Family Radio Network, a regular contributor for ReligionToday.com, Crosswalk.com and various Christian TV networks. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. Russ is married to Jackie and together they have four children. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook.com/russjones.
Publication date: July 26, 2012