WASHINGTON-The most prominent evangelical college in the country joined a chorus of Catholic and Protestant institutions suing the federal government over the contraceptive mandate. Wheaton College filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the Department of Health and Human Services had violated its religious freedom and free speech.
"This insurance mandate is against our conscience and our Christian conviction," said Philip Ryken, president of the school located in Wheaton, Ill. "We had no recourse but to file this suit."
The mandate "runs roughshod over Wheaton's religious beliefs, and the beliefs of millions of other Americans, by forcing it to provide health insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs and related education and counseling," the lawsuit reads. (Download a PDF of the complaint.)
Wheaton, which was founded in 1860 and is one of the oldest evangelical schools in the country, is neither a church nor a seminary so it would not qualify for the contraceptive mandate's narrow religious exemption. The college would have to provide full insurance coverage for all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives, which include Plan B, the "morning-after" pill, and Ella, the "week-after" pill. Ryken had written letters objecting to the mandate to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius beginning in September 2011. He said the college's board made the decision to file a lawsuit in May, but wanted to wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its healthcare decision to see whether that would resolve the issue.
Wheaton noted in the complaint that it has "no conscientious objection" to contraceptives, but it objected to providing insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs or services "even if those items were paid for by an insurer or a plan administrator and not by Wheaton College."
The Obama administration has proffered an "accommodation" where insurers would provide contraceptives in religious employees' coverage for free, though no one knows who would pay for the contraceptives without the cost being rolled into premiums. Furthermore, the administration has only discussed the "accommodation," not put forward regulations to put it into effect.
Ryken, the former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia who became president of Wheaton and its 2,400 undergraduate students two years ago, said he was concerned with the administration's creation of two tiers of religious groups: those that are fully exempted (churches) and those that are subject to the "accommodation" (everyone else).
"Institutions like Wheaton College should not be merely accommodated, they should be exempted like churches are," he said.
The administration is now facing 24 lawsuits across the country over the mandate, from religious colleges, nonprofit groups, and business owners. (See a list of lawsuits from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.) On Tuesday, a Nebraska judge dismissed one of the lawsuits, filed by several states and Catholic institutions, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing because they didn't face "immediate harm" from the mandate, which is set to take effect for most groups in August 2013.
The Becket Fund, which is representing Wheaton and a number of other institutions suing over the mandate, said that ruling was "technical" and had little bearing on Wheaton's suit because the college is facing immediate harm as it negotiates insurance coverage for next year.