In the wake of a decision by the administration of President Donald Trump to reinterpret federal health regulations requiring religious employers to pay for contraceptive health insurance coverage, a federal judge has granted Wheaton College a permanent injunction barring the federal government from forcing the prominent evangelical Christian college in Chicago’s western suburbs from having to pay for its employees’ contraception, which the college had argued would violate its religious rights.
On Feb. 22, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. issued the injunction, permanently prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the so-called contraceptive mandate under the federal Affordable Care Act, the sweeping health insurance reform law commonly known as Obamacare.
Mark Rienzi | Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
In ordering the injunction, Dow noted “Wheaton has demonstrated, and (the federal government) defendants now concede, that enforcement of the contraceptive mandate against Wheaton would violate Wheaton’s rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” adding “the public interest in the vindication of religious freedom favors the entry of an injunction.”
Wheaton College and the federal government have contested the matter in federal courts since 2014, when the college, citing religious freedom under the Constitution and the RFRA law, first challenged the power of the federal government to order it to pay for or otherwise authorize health insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs, known as abortifacients.
Should the college have simply refused to do so, the college noted the potential under the ACA law to force the school to pay fines of $100 per person per day.
The college framed the dispute as a dilemma, forcing the college “to choose between violating its traditional Christian beliefs about the sanctity of life and paying millions of dollars in yearly fines.”
In 2014, both a federal district judge and a three-judge panel at the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago rejected Wheaton’s request for an injunction, temporarily barring the federal government, under the administration of former President Barack Obama, from enforcing the mandate, pending Wheaton’s challenge and those of others moving through the courts.
Wheaton, however, appealed to the U.S Supreme Court, which granted an injunction, with justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting. In that decision, the court vacated the Seventh Circuit’s decision, as well as similar findings from other appeals courts, and sent the case back to federal district court to give the sides “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward” that could accommodate the religious employers’ objections and provide for the contraceptive coverage mandated by the ACA.
Following the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, however, the federal agencies reexamined the mandate and, under the rubric of an executive order signed by Trump, the agencies issued new rules declaring the federal government believes requiring religious employers, like Wheaton College, to comply with the contraceptive mandate or other rules that violate their religious beliefs “constituted a substantial burden on the religious exercise of many” and would violate the RFRA law.
While those rules have been challenged and, for now, put on hold by other federal courts, those courts indicated the injunctions against the rules should not have any bearing on currently pending litigation, such as Wheaton College’s challenge pending before Judge Dow in Chicago.
With this acknowledgment in hand, Wheaton College petitioned Judge Dow in January to order the permanent injunction forbidding any further attempts at enforcement.
“Here, Wheaton is entitled to a permanent injunction and declaratory relief because there is no longer any doubt that it has succeeded on the merits of its RFRA claim, given the government’s concessions … that the accommodation would, in fact, use Wheaton’s health plan, and therefore imposes a substantial burden under RFRA that is not the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest,” Wheaton asserted in its Jan. 18 motion for preliminary injunction.
Judge Dow agreed.
“After reconsideration of their position, Defendants (the federal government) now agree that enforcement of the currently operative rules regarding the 'contraceptive mandate’ against employers with sincerely held religious objections would violate RFRA, and thus do not oppose Wheaton’s renewed motion for injunctive and declaratory relief,” Dow wrote. “… The Court agrees that Wheaton is entitled to a permanent injunction.”
Wheaton College is represented in the matter by attorneys Mark Rienzi and Diana Verm, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, of Washington, D.C., and Christian Poland, of the firm of Bryan Cave LLP, in Chicago.
In a prepared statement issued after the ruling, Verm said: “The government is not above the law - that’s why we have civil rights laws. Wheaton should never have had to go to court to protect its rights in the first place. This order ensures we won’t have to come back."