Wheaton College today joined other religious institutions in filing lawsuits over the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandate. President Philip Ryken spoke with Christianity Today about the college’s decision.
How did you decide to pursue the lawsuit?
The Wheaton College Board of Trustees has been concerned about the Health and Human Services mandate from the very time that it was first delivered to us, back in September. The Wheaton College board has been keeping abreast of developments throughout the year. I have written on several occasions both to the secretary of Health and Human Services and to the President expressing our concerns on issues of religious liberty as it relates to the mandate. We’ve also been working in concert with other evangelical institutions here at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities throughout the year on these issues. By May, the Wheaton College Board of Trustees decided that no remedy was yet forthcoming and therefore it was important for us to file a lawsuit. However, we decided we wanted to wait until the Supreme Court made its decision on the health insurance mandate generally, at the end of June, in case there would be some remedy forthcoming through the Supreme Court decision. When that proved not to be the case, we were ready to file a lawsuit.
Is there any danger in at least appearing political with this lawsuit?
Wheaton College is not a partisan institution and the effect of our filing on any political process has played no part at all in any of our board discussions on the issue. The timing of things is driven primarily by the mandate itself. Wheaton College stands to face punitive fines already on January 1, 2013, and I am welcoming incoming freshmen in two weeks. It’s already an issue for us in terms of our health insurance and what we provide for this coming academic year. Although we wanted to wait for the Supreme Court decision out of respect for the legal system, we do not believe that we can wait any longer.
Is there a particular angle you’re taking in this lawsuit that other Christian colleges aren’t taking?
The circumstances of each college or university will be unique, depending on the structure of the health insurance they provide or on specific ethical standards within their community. I probably can’t comment on any specific differences between Wheaton and Geneva, say, or Colorado Christian University. I see a strong similarity in that the issue for us is abortion-inducing drugs, as it is for them. But more broadly, because of our Christian convictions on that issue, we believe there’s a very important religious liberty issue at stake in all of this. I think the other institutions that have filed are also doing it primarily because of their concern to protect the freedom of religion in the United States.
You did a press conference this morning with the leader of a Catholic institution. Is there any danger of watering down theological differences between evangelicals and Catholics, or is it advantageous to work together on this issue?
Our board felt strongly that if the possibility presented itself, we had a strong interest in filing alongside a Roman Catholic institution. This is fully in keeping with Wheaton’s convictions. We’re clear on our Protestant identity and there are many areas of theological disagreement that we have with Roman Catholic colleges and universities. This filing is not a way of suggesting that those differences have in any way been erased. But here’s an issue where we have strong agreement, and that is the value of religious freedom for all people everywhere. We also believe that we have a stake in the success of Catholic institutions winning their religious freedom arguments. Even if [contraception] is not a universal point of conviction for Protestants the way that it is for Roman Catholics, we believe that Catholic institutions should have the freedom to carry out their mission without government coercion. That struggle for liberty is a struggle for our own liberty and, we would argue, a struggle for the liberty of all Americans.
Do you expect pushback or confusion from alumni or the outside community?
I expect very strong support from Wheaton College alumni for this filing. Almost anything that Wheaton does will engender opposition as well as support. It may be that there are alumni who no longer share the convictions of our community covenant about the sanctity of life. I’m not sure what other objections people might have. More generally in our culture people have ignored this issue—partly because they think it’s primarily a Catholic issue, partly because there’s an attitude that’s fairly pervasive in our culture that religious people or people of religious convictions should really get with the program on whatever issue it is. In this case, it’s providing abortion-inducing drugs along with other legitimate areas of concern for women’s health. I think most Americans have not considered seriously the religious liberty issue that’s at stake. So part of our interest in filing alongside a Roman Catholic institution is to help the American public see that this is a fundamental religious liberty issue and not, for example, merely an issue over contraception.
When you say abortion-inducing drugs, what are specific drugs you’re concerned about?
The definition of “contraception” in the HHS mandate includes morning-after and week-after drugs, which Protestants and Roman Catholics both recognize as abortifacient drugs and not merely contraceptive drugs. Furthermore, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in some of her public comments has made it clear that these are drugs that prevent in some cases or in many cases the implantation of a fertilized egg. So even though the government is using a definition of contraception that we think is morally misleading, in terms of the science of what these drugs do, there’s little public disagreement about their effect. The only difference of opinion is about the moral implications of that effect.
Does Wheaton provide contraception to its students? If an unmarried student goes to the health center for contraception, what happens?
Wheaton provides students insurance coverage, including contraception for married students who are covered by our college health plan. Our filing actually is not dealing directly with student healthcare; it’s dealing with faculty and staff healthcare. Many of our students receive insurance through their own family insurance—probably two-thirds of them. But we certainly provide coverage that relates to contraception for married faculty and staff.
Do you know if that includes the abortifacient pills?
It does not include abortifacient drugs. No.
You said you were concerned with students coming in and how to cover them. Can you explain how this applies to employee health plans and student health plans?
The status of student healthcare plans is more confusing—there’s been a lack of clarity coming from the government on what is or is not covered. So for the present, our focus is on faculty and staff healthcare coverage. That’s what our filing relates to.
Are there policies in place for if an unmarried student asks for contraception?
We do not provide contraception through our on-campus healthcare.
It seems like it’s fairly unusual for Wheaton to do something like this. Is it a big step? Does it feel out of your comfort zone?
We are reluctant filers. We’ve been appealing to the government all year to provide an exemption for religious institutions— not merely churches, but other religious institutions. It’s our conviction that institutions like Wheaton College have religious freedoms too that ought to be protected by the United States Constitution. It’s very distressing to have to come to a point of actually filing a lawsuit on these issues. It’s a matter of strong conviction and our board is unanimous that this is the right step to take for Wheaton College. It’s certainly unprecedented for us to file a lawsuit against the government, and we’re doing it only as a last resort.
Did you feel any pressure from evangelicals who felt this was an important battle to join or are you risking backlash from others?
Our decision has not been a matter primarily of conversation with the evangelical community. No one has been lobbying us on this issue. It’s just an issue we are concerned about as a board and also in conversation with other evangelical colleges and universities that have similar concerns.
Why do you think higher education groups are so involved with this?
First, the mandate does not apply to organizations that have fewer than 50 employees, so many smaller Christian ministries will not be affected by this. So that may be one reason—all the colleges and universities are much bigger than that. The other thing is because Christian colleges and universities are connected with Washington concerns on other issues, we’re probably more aware of what’s happening in Washington than many other ministries might be. But I think by the time all is said and done there will be non-educational institutions from the evangelical community that also will be filing suit on this issue if they have not done so already.