March 1 2018

After a five-year court battle, a judge ruled Thursday, Feb. 22 that Wheaton would not be forced to comply with healthcare mandates requiring the provision of “emergency contraception” in its health care plan, as it would violate “sincerely held religious beliefs” of the college.

Becket, a non-profit, public interest legal and educational institution that specializes in cases regarding religious liberty, provided pro bono legal counsel for Wheaton according Bryan Seiler, Director of Legal Affairs at the college. The defendant in the case was the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar II.

The permanent injunction granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit orders that “Defendants … are enjoined and restrained from any effort to apply or enforce the substantive requirements … [that] relate to provision of contraceptive coverage services which violate Wheaton College’s conscience and are enjoined and restrained from pursuing, charging or assessing penalties, fines, assessments or any other enforcement actions for noncompliance.”

According to Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket and Wheaton alumna ‘04, “this [permanent injunction] means that Wheaton has the right not to include in its health plan anything that could potentially terminate a human life … This order sets a precedent for other judges who are looking at this issue, especially for other religious organizations that have other cases pending.”

The government first issued regulations that mandated that non-profits include all types of FDA approved contraception — including “abortifacient” contraception — in 2011, according to Becket’s website.

“From the beginning, Wheaton’s goal has been to offer insurance coverage that is fully consistent with the commitments we make in our Community Covenant. We were also deeply troubled by the government’s view that although churches were exempt from the contraceptive mandate, other thoroughly religious institutions like Wheaton College were not,” explained President Ryken.

Wheaton then wrote a letter to HHS expressing concerns and received no response. Wheaton decided to sue the government in July 2012 for the right to protect its religious beliefs regarding certain forms of contraception.

“When the Department of Health and Human Services declined our repeated requests for an exemption, we filed suit to protect religious liberty — not only for ourselves, but also for other religious schools, publishing houses and ministries,” said Ryken.

Throughout the next five years, Wheaton’s case was delayed, dismissed, denied and appealed multiple times. In 2016, another similar case was heard by the Supreme Court that ruled in favor of religious organizations. Finally, the district court ended Wheaton’s case by granting them permanent relief from the mandate.

The permanent injunction granted by the court states that Wheaton is granted immediate relief from having to comply to the mandate. The court found that forcing the college to follow the contraceptive mandate would violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This injunction protects Wheaton from being required to implement this particular contraceptive mandate any future version of an HHS mandate that any administration orders that would be contrary to the beliefs of the college.

If the case had not been decided in Wheaton’s favor, “The fines are either [one] hundred dollars per employee affected by the rules, which would add up to millions of dollars for Wheaton, or two thousand dollars per year per employee, which would also add up to millions of dollars, so it really would challenge Wheaton’s existence,” Verm told the Record.

“The choices we faced would have been deeply damaging to our mission: either to act in a way that was inconsistent with our commitment to the sanctity of life, or else to face punitive fines that would have threatened our financial viability,” Ryken agreed.

According to junior Bethany Lin, president of Wheaton’s pro-life group Voice For Life, “This decision is important for Wheaton and is one battle won in the midst of many. It’s not just women at Wheaton affected by this ruling; the whole community is.

“The outcome in Wheaton v. Azar sets a groundbreaking precedent,” said junior Eddie McDougal, co-founder of Wheaton’s Students for Religious Liberties club. “Now, Wheaton is protected from compromising Christian convictions in what products … are offered in the student healthcare center …. Wheaton is far from a perfect campus … But the legal freedom of Wheaton College in being able to say no to the HHS mandate provides an opportunity for us to live wholesome lives congruent with the community covenant.”