Wheaton College v. Azar
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In 2012, a government mandate threatened Wheaton College, a Christian school and one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, with crippling fines unless it violated its religious beliefs. Thanks to Becket, after a five-year court battle, in February 2018 a federal court ruled that the government was violating federal civil rights law if it forced Wheaton to provide services like the week-after pill in its healthcare plan against its religious beliefs. The order protects Wheaton from any current or future version of the mandate.
A government mandate that violates conscience
Wheaton College’s mission expresses its commitment to do all things “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Founded in 1860 by the prominent abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, Wheaton’s history is marked by the stories of students and alumni whose faith drives them to affect the church and society for good.
The government’s HHS mandate required the College to provide drugs and services in its insurance plans in violation of its religious convictions or pay annual fines of millions of dollars. Wheaton College wrote to the HHS Secretary about its concerns about these regulations, but to no avail. In July 2012, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, Wheaton College sued the government to protect its right to run the college according to its religious mission without fear from government fines.
Becket defends Wheaton College’s religious freedom
In August 2012, in direct response to Wheaton’s lawsuit challenging the HHS mandate , the federal government rewrote its one-year “safe harbor” to include Wheaton, giving it until August 2013, before being forced to comply with the mandate or face crippling fines. As a result of the government’s concession, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed Wheaton College’s lawsuit as premature.
In September 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, granted a motion for expedited appeal, which later handed an intermediate victory to the religious colleges when they ordered HHS to act quickly to fix the existing HHS Mandate.
Wheaton College’s original lawsuit was delayed for over a year by the government’s promise of a religious accommodation, but the government still insisted that Wheaton College was not a “religious employer” and therefore ineligible for a religious exemption. In December 2013, Becket refiled its lawsuit on behalf of Wheaton.
In June 2014, the district court denied Wheaton’s request for relief, and Wheaton appealed. In July 2014, Wheaton received last minute protection from the Supreme Court, protecting the College’s right to carry out its religious mission free from IRS fines.
In June 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in Wheaton’s case. In July 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied Wheaton College relief.
In May 2016, in the related case Zubik v. Burwell, the Supreme Court ordered the government to explore alternatives that would protect religious freedom. On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption, admitting that the mandate was illegal as applied to religious objectors like Wheaton. On February 22, 2018, the district court ended Wheaton’s five-year legal battle, protecting it from any current and future application of the mandate.