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Wheaton College gets injunction from Supreme Court on birth control coverage case

WHEATON – Wheaton College continues to move closer to the center of the national debate over how and if religious employers should insure birth control they find objectionable.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the college an injunction, allowing it to opt out of completing a form in compliance with the Affordable Health Care contraceptive mandate while its case is settled by an appellate court.

Without the injuction, the college would owe upwards of $35 million in annual fines for refusing to insure emergency contraceptives such as Plan B and ella.

“On the eve of Independence Day, we are grateful to God that the Supreme Court has made a wise decision in protecting our religious liberty – at least until we have an opportunity to make our full case in court," said college President Philip Ryken in a statement through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the college in the case.

Churches can opt out of the mandate outright, while other religious institutions including colleges and nonprofits may do so as well, but only if they fill out a form for their insurance provider or a third party, allowing the mandate to be fulfilled with a federal reimbursement.

Wheaton College originally filed a suit in 2012, saying filling out a form to enable the use of objectionable drugs by its employees, their families and the college's students infringes upon its rights.

"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 college states in a 2013 complaint.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied Wheaton's motion for a preliminary injunction, which is in the appeals process, on June 23, according to the Becket Fund.

The decision to give the injunction mirrors another case the Becket Fund represented on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the fund said on its website. The religious institute for women was granted a similar injunction in January, requiring the group give the U.S. Health and Human Services Department written notice of its objection.

That doesn't mean the college can continue to avoid the form, however. The six justices who approved the Wheaton College injunction cautioned the order "should not be construed as an expression of the Court's views on the merits."

In a dissent on behalf of the three female justices, all of whom voted against it, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it was "a form of relief as rare as it is extreme."

"The sincerity of Wheaton's deeply held religious beliefs is beyond refute," she said in the dissent. "But as a legal matter, Wheaton's application comes nowhere near the high bar necessary to warrant an emergency injunction from this Court."

She said the college's argument was flawed and the coverage was not triggered by the form, but by the law itself.

Additionally, she said the accommodation is permissible under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless the application of the burden "is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest."

The form the college refuses to complete is the least restrictive means of furthering the government's "compelling interests in public health and women's well-being," she said.

"It may be that what troubles Wheaton is that it must participate in any [sic] process the end result of which might be the provision of contraceptives to its employees," Sotomayor writes, "But that is far from a substantial burden on its free exercise of religion."

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