Last week Wheaton College joined a lawsuit opposing the Health and Human Services (HHS) Preventative Services mandate, which forces the evangelical school to violate its religious convictions by covering abortion-causing drugs in its employee health plan. Equally noteworthy is the story's subhead: Wheaton joined the lawsuit with the Catholic University of America (CUA).
If the HHS mandate portends a chill on religious liberty, the Wheaton-CUA partnership represents a warming allegiance that bodes well for helping stave off a secularist winter.
"This alliance marks the first-ever partnership between Catholic and evangelical institutions to oppose the same regulation in the same court," explains the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is providing legal representation for the schools.
The announcement is just the latest example of opposition to the HHS mandate, which has been remarkably intense, sustained, and ecumenical. Under the new health care law, HHS requires nearly all employer health plans to cover abortion drugs, contraception, and sterilization regardless of moral objection. The policy's religious exemption effectively covers only formal houses of worship, disregarding other religious groups' freedom of conscience. Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox, and Jewish groups, among others, have expressed concerns about the policy since HHS proposed it last August.
Wheaton president Philip Ryken wrote his first letter of concern to HHS in September. The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals, both representing dozens of Christian institutions, sent letters to the White House in December.
Shocking Disregard for Freedom
Given the widespread pushback on the policy last fall, many observers were shocked by the HHS announcement in January that the final rule would keep the same narrow exemption that failed to resolve the religious liberty problem. Even some staunch allies of the Obama administration began to urge a policy shift. That led in February to a White House press briefing, at which President Obama outlined potential changes.
But a presidential press conference does not constitute official policy. In yet another surprise, later that very day the administration finalized the August rule that had ignited the controversy.
If the Obama administration was serious about resolving the religious liberty conflict, this was the occasion on which it should have corrected course. Instead, the administration's actions on February 10 were contradictory: talking of change in a well-publicized press conference, while in reality giving force of law to the unacceptable original mandate and causing confusion that lingers even now.
In March, the administration muddled matters further by issuing a description of a proposed "accommodation" for religious groups. This hypothetical policy change involves what President Ryken refers to as a "shell game," which would make insurance companies functionally responsible for the mandated services---complicating bookkeeping without relieving religious institutions' moral responsibility.
Whatever its potential effect, the concept is merely theoretical; the administration has given no sign it will adopt the change anytime soon.
Together Against the Mandate
By late spring, lack of resolution led to growing anxiety among many religious groups. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took a particularly strong and vocal lead, and on a single day in May, 43 Catholic groups filed suit against the HHS mandate, including ministries providing inner-city education, aid to the disabled, and hospice care. Evangelical higher education institutions took to court as well, with lawsuits from Colorado Christian University, Geneva College, and Louisiana College (a Baptist school). To date, 58 plaintiffs have joined 24 lawsuits.
Meanwhile, many eyes (including Wheaton board members', Ryken says) were on the U.S. Supreme Court to see whether its decision on the broader health care law might resolve the religious liberty conflict. But on June 28 the answer was clear: The ruling did no such thing.
That chronology brought Wheaton to the conclusion that it would have to sue to protect its religious liberty, Ryken explained. The Wheaton board decided to join a Catholic institution in doing so, he says, to underscore that the fundamental issue of religious liberty extends well beyond incidental features of this offensive government policy. Much of the coverage of the HHS mandate controversy has focused on Catholics and contraception, leaving an impression that the clash is idiosyncratic to a particular view of birth control, and that other religious groups need not be concerned.
To the contrary, Ryken told reporters, "The fact that evangelicals and Catholics are coming together on this issue ought to be a sign to all Americans that something really significant in terms of religious liberty is at stake."
Ryken noted the two camps' theological differences to emphasize why he believes the alliance is so remarkable. "Wheaton College is a distinctively Protestant institution, in our hiring practices, in our theology," he said, but the evangelical college finds "common cause with . . . Catholic institutions in defending religious liberty."
"We're, in fact, co-belligerents in this fight against government action," Ryken said, introducing journalists to Francis Schaeffer's description of alliances among groups that disagree theologically but share common principles on today's contested faith-related cultural issues.
New Era of Co-Belligerency?
Such alliances are critical for a generation of Christian leaders who will face growing challenges to biblical views on the protection of life and the institution of marriage, and to religious liberty generally. The grave issue at the heart of resistance to the HHS mandate is government forcing religious groups and individuals to violate their convictions. If the government does so in this specific instance of health care, what prevents it from doing it again in any number of other areas, from hiring issues to the expression of biblical views on sexuality?
"I think it's a fairly pervasive attitude in our culture that people with religious convictions should really get along with the program, whatever the program is," Ryken said. He told a reporter how deliberations over Wheaton's response to the HHS mandate had fired in him "a latent passion for religious liberty."
On a visit to Salisbury Cathedral 10 days before his arrival in Washington, D.C., to announce the lawsuit, Ryken had viewed one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. In that documentary progenitor of constitutional liberty, "the very first freedom articulated is religious liberty."
"Everything else flows from religious liberty," Ryken observed of our own constitutional order. "Therefore you adjust and accommodate other things around that freedom. You don't adjust and accommodate that freedom around other things that are more fundamental, because nothing else is."
Stewardship of America's unique heritage of freedom should compel evangelicals to guard this fundamental liberty dearly. And when it is challenged, we should be ready to stand with all those who love this uncommon grace.
Jennifer A. Marshall, a graduate of Wheaton College, is director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. She is author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century. You can follow her on Twitter @MarshallJenA.
First appeared in The Gospel Coalition