The Common Good

Wheaton College Joins Lawsuit Against Obama's Contraception Mandate

Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater and a top evangelical school, joined Catholic groups in a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate even as a federal judge’s ruling clouded prospects for such actions.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College in Illinois. Photo via Wylio.
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College in Illinois. Photo via Wylio http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/5978664560

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Wheaton, located west of Chicago, filed the suit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C., joining Catholic University of America, which launched its suit two months ago. The University of Notre Dame and dozens of other religious organizations, mainly Catholic, have also filed suits in federal courts around the country to overturn the mandate. 

Wheaton is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal advocacy group that has spearheaded many of the challenges to the policy, which will require most employer health insurance plans to provide birth control coverage.

The mandate, issued by the Health and Human Services Department, goes into effect on Aug. 1, but most religious organizations have a year’s grace period while they try to work out an acceptable accommodation with the administration.

Faith-based organizations, mainly Catholic hospitals and universities, have strenuously objected to the religious exemption provided under the proposals. They have been joined by a number of evangelical groups in lobbying for changes to the mandate or strategizing to overturn it.

Wheaton President Philip Ryken said that while evangelicals do not ascribe to the Catholic teaching against artificial birth control, the mandate requires coverage for so-called “morning after” pills like Plan B, to which the college objects. Ryken said Plan B is an “abortion-inducing” drug, though studies show that the pill apparently does not cause abortions.

Ryken also said the exemption that the Obama administration has proposed for churches and religious groups excludes many faith-based hospitals and colleges. Having the government decide which faith groups qualify as sufficiently “religious” is a violation of religious freedom, he said.

“In effect, we are co-belligerents in our fight” against the mandate, Ryken said of the Catholic groups that oppose the mandate. Ryken was joined in the call by Catholic University President John Garvey and Kyle Duncan, lead counsel for the Becket Fund.

“This mandate is not just a Catholic issue – it threatens people of all faiths,” said Duncan. “Wheaton’s historic decision to join the fight alongside a Catholic institution shows the broad consensus that the mandate endangers everyone’s religious liberty.”

Ryken said Wheaton had been considering a lawsuit for months but had been waiting for the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law. The high court upheld the law in a landmark decision last month.

While the legal battle lines are clearer, it’s still not certain that Wheaton and other groups will prevail in the lawsuits and whether any rulings will come in time to affect the presidential campaign this fall.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Nebraska rejected an effort by seven Republican state attorneys general and several Catholic institutions to block the implementation of the law.

U.S. District Court Judge Warren K. Urbom said the attorneys general couldn’t show the states would be harmed by the mandate, especially since it does not go into effect until Aug. 1.

Urbom added that the religious plaintiffs failed to show that the mandate’s religious exemption wouldn’t apply to them and that the Obama’s administration is still working with religious groups to craft an acceptable accommodation for faith-based groups.

‘‘In short, the individual plaintiffs have not shown that their current health plans will be required to cover contraception-related services under the Rule, and therefore their claims must be dismissed,’’ Urbom wrote.

Duncan said Urbom’s ruling was a technical one that did not address the core arguments against the mandate. He said it would have no bearing on other rulings that are expected in the coming months, or once the mandate goes into full effect next year.

Duncan and Ryken and the others also rejected the accommodation being proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services as “a shell game” that would still leave religious institutions underwriting objectionable policies.

The accommodation currently being negotiated by the HHS seeks to work around religious objections by having insurance companies themselves, rather than faith-based employers, pay for the birth control coverage.

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. Via RNS.

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