Wheaton College will follow other religious institutions by filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration's contraception mandate, president Philip Ryken will announce Wednesday morning. The college's suit in the D.C. District Court will be one of the more high-profile actions by an evangelical institution.
Health and Human Services announced in August 2011 that organizations would be required to provide contraception to their employees as part of the health care law President Obama signed. Religious institutions began filing lawsuits in December after it became clear the administration would not provide an exemption for religious institutions that are not churches.
"This morning, the Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit in the Washington, D.C. District Court opposing the mandate, which, if enacted, would force the College to violate its religious beliefs or pay severe fines," Ryken wrote in an e-mail to Wheaton's faculty and staff. "We are joining with Catholic University of America in order to demonstrate that a deep concern for the sanctity of human life and a strong belief in the importance of religious freedom are areas of commonality that transcend our theological differences."
Ryken said that the list of approved contraceptives includes "abortifacient 'morning after' and 'week after' drugs, presumably referring to contraceptives such as Plan B and Ella.
"I have every hope that Wheaton College will continue to provide excellent health care to all of its employees," he said in the e-mail. "However, we stand to face punitive fines for not complying with the HHS regulations as of January 1, 2013."
(See also Christianity Today's interview with Ryken about the suit.)
The mandate goes into effect August 1, though most religious institutions have another year to comply. But for non-church faith-based organizations whose insurance plans on February 10 did include contraceptives, the mandate comes into effect on or after August 1.
"Filing a lawsuit against the government is no small thing," said Shapri LoMaglio, who heads government relations for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. "The more who file suit makes clear what a watershed moment it is for religious institutions."
A group of interfaith leaders from groups such as Wheaton, World Vision, World Relief, and Evangelicals for Social Action sent an Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance letter of "grave concern" to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on June 11. (Christianity Today's editor-in-chief David Neff also signed the letter.)
The group outlined its concern that the administration narrowly defined a set of religious employers with a different accommodation for non-exempt religious organizations. In other words, a religious employer such as Wheaton College would be under a different set of rules from an evangelical church.
"Any attempt to narrow the scope of what is legally recognized as a religious institution sets a dangerous precedent and undermines the character of the institution going forward because their religious identity is vital to who they are," LoMaglio said. "What these lawsuits show is that religious groups do not view the accommodation as adequate."
Evangelical institutions Colorado Christian University, Louisiana College, and Geneva College have already joined several Catholic institutions in filing lawsuits to challenge the rule. A spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) told CT it also expects to file more lawsuits soon. So far, academic institutions appear more interested in filing lawsuits than other kinds of religious organizations.