Wheaton drops student health insurance to avoid Obamacare contraception mandate

The 'evangelical Harvard' rejects any "accommodation" that would let insurers offer the coverage to students directly. Wheaton's lawyer said signing a letter citing religious beliefs to opt out of the coverage unacceptable.

Wheaton College in Illinois. Photo by Blanche Heidengren via Wheaton College Media Center
Wheaton College in Illinois. Photo by Blanche Heidengren via Wheaton College Media Center

Wheaton College in Illinois. Photo by Blanche Heidengren via Wheaton College Media Center

CHICAGO, (Reuters) — Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in Illinois, will stop providing health insurance to students on Friday because of its objection to the Obamacare mandate to provide contraceptive coverage, a legal group has announced.

The decision affects about 500 of 3,000 students at the nondenominational liberal arts school — nicknamed the “evangelical Harvard” — in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based legal group that represents the college.

Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said in a statement that the government’s insistence that the college provide insurance services that contradict its religious beliefs forced it to make this “difficult choice.”

READ: Nuns lose latest court battle to avoid contraception mandate

Colleges are not required to provide health insurance to students, but the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, requires policies provided by colleges that offer insurance to cover preventive services for women, including access to contraception and sterilization.

The contraception requirement has been challenged by Wheaton College as well as religiously affiliated nonprofits and family-owned companies such as Hobby Lobby Stores.

The devout Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain, objected to four of the 20 federally approved contraceptive medications and devices that would be required under the health care law. It provided, and continues to offer birth control pill through its insurance coverage after winning an exemption for small family owned corporations in a Supreme Court decision.

READ: Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green stands on faith against Obamacare mandate

Wheaton objects to the same four forms of contraception — so-called “morning-after” pills and intrauterine devices that prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, according to the Becket Fund, which also represented Hobby Lobby.

A government provision would require the college to notify the government that it wanted to opt out by claiming a religious exemption, which would cause the college’s insurers to provide coverage directly to students.

Wheaton objected to the provision, which would allow the government to use the college’s health plans to get around its religious opposition, said Becket attorney Mark Rienzi.

“It’s hard to believe the government’s making the world better by stopping Wheaton from offering the insurance it used to offer,” said Rienzi. The college will keep fighting in court, he added.

According to the Chicago Tribune, 3,000 students will not be offered insurance but it faculty and staff health insurance will not be affected.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Wheaton’s request for a preliminary injunction on July 1.

READ: What’s abortifacient? Disputes over birth control fuel Obamacare fight

But requests by faith-based non-profits to refuse even an opt-out letter — the same accommodation offered Hobby Lobby — have not faired well in the courts so far. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled against a group of Catholic nuns who serve the elderly, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who refuse the accommodation.

The appellate court ruled that the signing such a letter would “not substantially burden their religious exercise” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “or infringe upon their First Amendment rights.”

The ruling says: “Having to file paperwork or otherwise register a religious objection, even if one disagrees with the ultimate aim of the law at issue, does not alone substantially burden religious exercise.” And it calls the accommodation “at least as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax form, or registering to vote — in other words, a routine, brief administrative task.”

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