Wheaton College, Catholic University Jointly Sue Over Birth Control Mandate

Wheaton College, an evangelical institution, joined forces Wednesday with Catholic University of America to sue the government for requiring that it provide health insurance coverage for some abortifacient drugs to its employees and students.

Wheaton's main reason for filing suit, Dr. Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, explained in a Wednesday conference call with reporters, is that the pro-life institution opposes the use of abortifacient drugs and would be forced to violate its religious beliefs.

"This insurance mandate is against our conscience and against our Christian convictions. We have no recourse now but to file suit," Ryken said.

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Ryken added that Wheaton and Catholic University also wanted to demonstrate cross-denominational solidarity on the issue of religious freedom.

"We have a respect for Roman Catholic institutions and in this case we recognize we have common cause with Catholic University of America and other Catholic institutions in defending religious liberty. We're, in effect, co-belligerents in this fight against government action. I think the fact that evangelicals and Catholics are coming together on this issue ought to be a sign to all Americans that something really significant for religious liberty is at stake."

John Garvey, president of Catholic University of America, said that the addition of Wheaton College to the now 24 lawsuits demonstrates that the issue is about religious freedom, not contraception.

"This is not a fight over contraception. Evangelicals, in fact, don't agree with Catholics on their opposition to contraception and birth control."

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the birth control mandate in January, which requires almost all employers who provide health insurance to cover contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs. There is a religious exemption, but most religious groups, such as Christian colleges, do not qualify for the exemption.

Ryken expressed particular concern that Wheaton and other religious institutions were not provided an exemption.

The effect of the exemption is "to create two classes of religious institutions in the United States -- those who have full protection for their religious freedom and those that do not. Our hope is that a full exemption will eventually be provided for Wheaton College and other religious institutions," Ryken said.

In February, President Barack Obama proposed a change to the law in an effort to accommodate objections to the mandate. Religious employers would not have to provide the coverage but their insurance providers must provide it without any premium increase or co-pay. That proposal has not been added to the law, though. Even it if were, Ryken added, it does not go far enough because it keeps in place the law's two-class religion scheme.

"Wheaton College should not be merely accommodated in some way, but should be exempt in the same way that churches are," Ryken said.

He explained that Wheaton waited until now to file suit because it was waiting to see if the Supreme Court would resolve the issue by striking down the Affordable Care Act (2010), which gave HHS the authority to implement the mandate. The Supreme Court ruled last month that almost all of the ACA is constitutional.

Additionally, Wheaton did not qualify for the law's "safe harbor" provision that would keep the mandate from going into effect for another year. Wheaton needed to sue now, Ryken pointed out, because the school will be required to abide by the mandate in January.

Both Ryken and Garvey clarified that the November election played no role in the timing of the lawsuit and they do not believe it is a partisan issue.

"Religious freedom is something that we hope both Republicans and Democrats will be attentive to," Garvey said, "and it is something that members of both parties have been equally guilty of ignoring from time to time. So if it has the effect of making candidates for elective office attentive to the importance of doing what the First Amendment asks us to do, we think that's a good thing. But we do not have a side in the election campaign."

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