The Story: Wheaton College’s decision to stand up to an illegitimate government mandate leads to a victory for religious liberty.
The Background: Last Friday a federal judge ruled that the government would violate federal civil-rights laws if it forced Wheaton College to violate its religious beliefs by providing services like the week-after pill in its healthcare plans.
According to Becket Law, the judge’s order permanently forbids the government from imposing that mandate on Wheaton, ending the college’s five-year legal battle, which included receiving protection against the mandate from the Supreme Court in 2015.
In the ruling, the judge concluded that Wheaton had met the standards necessary for injunctive relief because:
- Wheaton has demonstrated, and Defendants now concede, that enforcement of the contraceptive mandate against Wheaton would violate Wheaton’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb;
- Wheaton will suffer irreparable harm to its ability to practice its religious beliefs, harm that is the direct result of Defendants’ conduct, unless Defendants are enjoined from further interfering with Wheaton’s practice of its religion;
- The threatened injury to Wheaton outweighs any injury to Defendants resulting from this injunction; and
- The public interest in the vindication of religious freedom favors the entry of an injunction
“We are grateful to God that the court recognized Wheaton’s religious identity and protected our ability to affirm the sanctity of human life,” said Philip Ryken, a TGC Council member and president of Wheaton College. “The government should never have tried to force us to provide drugs and services against our faith, and we are pleased by the resolution of our case.”
Why It Matters: When the Obama administration issued the mandate forcing religious non-profits to violate their beliefs, many people assumed Christian colleges would be the first to cave. After all, what are they going to do, stop providing health insurance for their students? But that was the bold step Wheaton took in 2015 when the school halted health-care coverage for about a quarter of the college’s 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
Leaving students without health insurance was unfortunate, and some students and alumni blamed the college. But the loss of the health insurance was entirely the fault of the Obama administration, not the administration at Wheaton. The college had repeatedly asked for a compromise that would not require them to violate their religious beliefs—and the federal government repeatedly refused to concede to such a reasonable request.
In one court ruling on Wheaton’s initial lawsuit, Judge Richard Posner wrote, “This is hardly a burdensome requirement.” Indeed, the Romans thought the same thing about Christians who refused to offer a small pinch of incense at the statue of Caesar. It’s such a small thing, they thought, and certainly nothing to die over. But many ancient Christians understood there is no greater burden than that which is placed upon one’s conscience. They understood that if they could not live according to their faith, then life was not worth living.
Fortunately, Christians in America do not face the same dire consequences as the Christians in Rome. We don’t face death or torture, but merely scorn and derision. The secular world—and far too many Christians—still condemn Wheaton for not backing down. “It was hardly a burdensome requirement,” they’ll say. But Wheaton College made the right choice—and was eventually vindicated.
Wheaton did the hard thing, the unpopular thing, because they refused to compromise on what the school stands for. For their boldness they deserve the praise and admiration of those of us who still believe that we answer to a higher authority than the federal government.