On July 3, 2014, the Supreme Court granted Wheaton College temporary relief from fines that would have been imposed by the Affordable Care’s Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) concerning abortifacient contraceptives.
Wheaton College proposed a change to the definition of an organization that is eligible to request for itself an exemption from providing the specific contraceptive drugs mandated under the PHS Act. As of now, exemptions are only granted to individuals expressing opposition to the mandate. The PHS Act would have required the college to provide its employees with contraceptives that could be considered abortive or pay fines amounting to $1.4 million annually. The college has been fighting for an exemption for two years and is now deciding whether or not to pursue the case in court.
The ACA mandate Wheaton has been fighting against requires institutions to provide contraceptives and contraceptive counseling for women. The mandate claims not to require that abortifacient drugs be provided. However, in addition to providing condoms, birth control pills and sterilization, among other contraceptives, the ACA also provides “emergency contraception.”
Wheaton College stands against the “morning after” and “week after” contraceptive pills because they can potentially cause abortions. The college does not want to be forced to provide these drugs to its employees, hence its extended court case in Washington, D.C.
“Wheaton supports nine of the 10 preventative services required by the HHS mandate and provides comprehensive health coverage to all of its employees, including contraception,” according to the FAQ about the college’s Supreme Court case on Wheaton College’s website. The FAQ continues, “We oppose one specific provision of the ACA, namely, the requirement that we provide certain contraceptives which in some circumstances may terminate human life after conception.”“We believe that the same exemption that has been granted to churches should be available to Wheaton College as a religious institution,” Taylor said on behalf of the college.
Amy Peeler, the assistant professor of New Testament said, “I hope and pray Wheaton can continue to be a good example of supporting life from conception to the grave.”
The FAQ on Wheaton’s website says, “We do not seek to impose our conscience on anyone else; members of our campus community voluntarily undertake the commitments of our Community Covenant, including the protection of human life.” The FAQ emphasizes that the college’s employees choose to partake in the Community Covenant “by their own free choice.”
LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations at Wheaton College, said that as of August 22, “The government has announced its intention to issue interim final rules concerning the mandate in light of the Supreme Court’s temporary injunction related to Wheaton College. Our attorneys at the Becket Fund and the Wheaton College Board of Trustees will assess the rule and make a decision about whether or not it resolves the concerns raised in our case.”
Even though Wheaton College is an evangelical Christian institution, the government did not recognize it as a religious individual that could be exempted from the HHS mandate until this summer. Furthermore, the College has not yet had the opportunity to present its case in court.
Wheaton College filed a lawsuit against HHS in the Washington, D.C. district court on July 18, 2012.
President Philip Ryken said, “The decision to file the lawsuit was a difficult one, and I wouldn’t expect everyone in the student body to agree with it. Most of the students I have spoken with about the case have been very supportive, especially when they know the facts of the case and the reasons behind it.”
According to the college’s website, on August 15, 2012, “Wheaton won an important victory when, as a direct result of the college’s emergency motion, the government re-wrote the ‘temporary enforcement safe harbor’ guidelines to give Wheaton an additional year before heavy fines begin to accrue.”
The case went in and out of court for the next two years.
On June 23, 2014, as recorded on Wheaton’s website, “the court denied Wheaton’s motion for a preliminary injunction.” Wheaton pursued an appeal, and as the website’s records continue, “On June 30, the Supreme Court entered a temporary injunction protecting Wheaton College from enforcement of the mandate while the government responds to Wheaton’s application for an injunction pending appeal.”
A victory finally arrived on July 3, 2014 when “Wheaton College received last-minute relief from the Supreme Court, protecting the College’s right to carry out its religious mission free from crippling IRS fines.” More details on the case’s history can be found on the college’s website under “Media Center and News” from July 2012.
Although the college received emergency relief from fines, it must now decide whether it should pursue the case in court.
As Ryken has previously stated, “We cannot abandon our Christian beliefs simply because the government refuses to recognize that Wheaton is a religious institution. The government has exempted plans covering millions of people from this mandate — we believe it should exempt Wheaton too.”