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Wheaton College gets temporary injunction from Supreme Court in contraceptive case

Published: Thursday, July 3, 2014 5:41 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:49 p.m. CST

WHEATON – Call it judicial intervention.

After a last-minute injunction by the U.S. Supreme Court, Wheaton College has – temporarily, at least – avoided paying upwards of $35 million in annual fines if it refuses to provide certain contraceptives to female employees, according to a court order.

How long the relief lasts remains up in the air.

The decision came Monday, hours before the fines for the college's insurance plan went into effect, with Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, according to a court release.

Wheaton College originally filed a suit in 2012 in response to the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employers insure a variety of birth control for their employees.

That mandate put the Christian college in an "impossible position" when it came to certain "abortion-causing drugs," according to a complaint filed in 2013. The college has no objection to providing or arranging coverage for most prescription contraceptives, it said in the document, with the exception of emergency contraceptives such as Plan B and ella.

"In light of these religious beliefs, Wheaton cannot participate in the government’s regulatory scheme to promote, encourage, and subsidize the use of drugs and devices that cause abortions," the complaint stated.

The college stated in the document that, despite having a heavily Christian background and a mission statement that it "serves Jesus Christ and advances his kingdom through excellence in liberal arts and graduate programs," it was not included in any of the law's explicit exemptions.

Only "churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches" and "the exclusively religious activities of any religious order" are allowed to opt out, according to the complaint.

Other religious institutions such as Wheaton College aren't covered and would be subject to fines.

"That is because, in the eyes of the government, Wheaton’s work educating students 'For Christ and His Kingdom' is not an 'exclusively religious activity,'" the complaint stated.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District previously denied Wheaton's motion for a preliminary injunction June 23 and is in the appeals process, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the college in the case. The fund also represented Hobby Lobby in a Supreme Court case decided Monday, which ended with the justices opting to allow the store to reject funding some birth control drugs due to religious beliefs.

The college cited two cases, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius and the aforementioned Hobby Lobby decision, in its formal appeal in June.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments from both the college's representatives and U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., who represented the federal government.

The government stated in its official argument the college was seeking "extraordinary relief" and asked the court deny the temporary injunction, saying it "would deprive hundreds of employees and students and their dependents of coverage for these important services."

Wheaton College's case is distinct from the Hobby Lobby case, according to the argument, because technically the college's complaint centers around filling out paperwork that would allow for their insurance provider to pay for the objectionable birth control, backed by government subsidies.

The college argues filling out a form that enables their insurers or third-party administrators requires them to participate in a system that federally subsidizes the drugs.

While there is "no dispute that applicant is eligible for the religious accommodations," the government said, the application should be denied because there is a process that makes the school "effectively exempt" from the process.

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