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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Media Coverage of Wheaton's HHS Decision

Media Hops on Wheaton’s HHS Decision

The decision by Wheaton College today to join the lawsuit of Catholic University of America and other Catholic institutions challenging the HHS Mandate marks a significant development. I welcome their decision and hope that it helps to demonstrate that this is not a partisan issue, or a uniquely Cathoic issue. I also hope the President of Wheaton College, Philip Ryken, will continue to articulate the views of the school with the kind or clarity and discretion evidenced in the initial media reports.
Here is a summary of the eary reporting on Wheaton’s decision.

Christianity Today has been in the lead with a news story and an interview with Ryken. Both the story and the interview were done by CT’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey. From the news story:

"Any attempt to narrow the scope of what is legally recognized as a religious institution sets a dangerous precedent and undermines the character of the institution going forward because their religious identity is vital to who they are," LoMaglio said. "What these lawsuits show is that religious groups do not view the accommodation as adequate."… The move is unusual for Wheaton, an institution that does not often join the political fray. Before he became president of Wheaton in 2010, Ryken was pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, having little public involvement in politics, law, or government. Other high-profile presidents of Christian colleges and universities, such as Baylor University (Ken Starr), Liberty University (Jerry Falwell, Jr.), and The Kings College (Dinesh D'Souza) have more politically-related backgrounds. Unlike Liberty, for instance, Wheaton rarely invites political candidates to speak in its chapel services.

Here are key excerpts from the interview with Ryken:

Is there any danger in at least appearing political with this lawsuit?
Wheaton College is not a partisan institution and the effect of our filing on any political process has played no part at all in any of our board discussions on the issue. The timing of things is driven primarily by the mandate itself. Wheaton College stands to face punitive fines already on January 1, 2013, and I am welcoming incoming freshmen in two weeks. It’s already an issue for us in terms of our health insurance and what we provide for this coming academic year. Although we wanted to wait for the Supreme Court decision out of respect for the legal system, we do not believe that we can wait any longer.

You did a press conference this morning with the leader of a Catholic institution. Is there any danger of watering down theological differences between evangelicals and Catholics, or is it advantageous to work together on this issue?
Our board felt strongly that if the possibility presented itself, we had a strong interest in filing alongside a Roman Catholic institution. This is fully in keeping with Wheaton’s convictions. We’re clear on our Protestant identity and there are many areas of theological disagreement that we have with Roman Catholic colleges and universities. This filing is not a way of suggesting that those differences have in any way been erased. But here’s an issue where we have strong agreement, and that is the value of religious freedom for all people everywhere. We also believe that we have a stake in the success of Catholic institutions winning their religious freedom arguments. Even if [contraception] is not a universal point of conviction for Protestants the way that it is for Roman Catholics, we believe that Catholic institutions should have the freedom to carry out their mission without government coercion. That struggle for liberty is a struggle for our own liberty and, we would argue, a struggle for the liberty of all Americans.

It seems like it’s fairly unusual for Wheaton to do something like this. Is it a big step? Does it feel out of your comfort zone?
We are reluctant filers. We’ve been appealing to the government all year to provide an exemption for religious institutions— not merely churches, but other religious institutions. It’s our conviction that institutions like Wheaton College have religious freedoms too that ought to be protected by the United States Constitution. It’s very distressing to have to come to a point of actually filing a lawsuit on these issues. It’s a matter of strong conviction and our board is unanimous that this is the right step to take for Wheaton College. It’s certainly unprecedented for us to file a lawsuit against the government, and we’re doing it only as a last resort.

The Becket Fund has been at the forefront of resistance to the HHS Mandate and they played a key role in coordinating Wheaton’s lawsuit with the Catholic University of America’s lawsuit. Their website carried a report framing Wheaton’s decision as a historic one:

This alliance marks the first-ever partnership between Catholic and evangelical institutions to oppose the same regulation in the same court.
“This mandate is not just a Catholic issue—it threatens people of all faiths,” says Kyle Duncan, General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  “Wheaton’s historic decision to join the fight alongside a Catholic institution shows the broad consensus that the mandate endangers everyone’s religious liberty.”
Wheaton’s religious convictions prevent it from providing its employees with access to abortion-causing drugs. The college’s lawsuit acts to preserve its religious liberty and the right to carry out its mission free from government coercion.
“Wheaton College and other distinctively Christian institutions are faced with a clear and present threat to our religious liberty,” says Wheaton College President Dr. Philip Ryken. “Our first president, the abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, believed it was imperative to act in defense of freedom. In bringing this suit, we act in defense of freedom again.”

This news is already rippling through the blogosphere and finding its way into major mainstream media outlets. This story is running at The Hill, one of the leading DC publications on politics.

The suit from Ill.-based Wheaton College — dubbed the "Notre Dame" of Protestant higher education — states that the controversial policy violates the religious freedom of people who object to birth control or consider forms of it equal to abortion…Catholic University filed its own suit in late May alongside Notre Dame University and the Archdiocese of Washington. 

"As the president of the national university of the Catholic Church, I am happy to express solidarity with our evangelical brothers from Wheaton College," said Catholic University President John Garvey. 

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