A judge ruled Thursday the government would violate federal civil rights laws if it forced Wheaton College to provide services like contraceptives in its health care plans against its religious beliefs, and granted a permanent injunction against it.
When the Obama administration instituted a contraceptive mandate several years ago through the Health and Human Services department, Wheaton College was one of the dozens of organizations to immediately oppose it. Wheaton, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, often referred to as the “Harvard of Christian schools,” argued being forced to pay for the contraceptives would violate its religious rights. The permanent injunction bars the government from ever forcing the school to pay.
This is the first district court order offering permanent protection from the HHS mandate after the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Zubik v. Burwell, which said that the government could not fine religious groups for following their faith and said it could find other ways to provide services to the women who want them. The injunction not only protects them from Obama’s “old” mandate, but from any similar, future mandates as well.
Attorney Diana Verm, an attorney with Becket, the non-profit organization which represented Wheaton along with another firm, and also Little Sisters of the Poor, in their fight against the HHS mandate, told me in an e-mail, “The district court had ruled against Wheaton before because of prior court of appeals precedent that has since been overturned by the Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell, where the Supreme Court told the government it could not fine groups like the Little Sisters and Wheaton College for following their faith.”
A portion of the injunction says, “After reconsideration of their position, Defendants now agree that enforcement of the currently operative rules regarding the “contraceptive mandate” against employers with sincerely held religious objections would violate RFRA, and thus do not oppose Wheaton’s renewed motion for injunctive and declaratory relief.”
Wheaton College’s values are steeped in Christian tradition. Originally founded in 1860 by prominent abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, the motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom” guides everything it does. Thus, in 2012, after receiving no response from HHS about its concerns regarding the mandate, Wheaton filed a lawsuit to defend its right to run its school according to its religious principles, not unlike, various other, similar, religious organizations.
In a statement, Phillip Ryken, president of Wheaton College said, “We are grateful to God that the court recognized Wheaton’s religious identity and protected our ability to affirm the sanctity of human life. The government should never have tried to force us to provide drugs and services against our faith, but that episode is now behind us.”
The complex and laborious issue regarding the HHS contraceptive mandate went to the Supreme Court five times; each time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting religious groups. The most promising thing about this current order, in terms of religious liberty, is that the judge essentially admits federal government violated the law when it demanded organizations provide contraception in the first place, and that’s why the judge granted temporary protection to religious objectors. Hopefully other judges will follow suit and declare injunctions for the other organizations in limbo, who still oppose the mandate, and are waiting for similar recognition and protection of their religious rights.