It was my time as a student at Wheaton College that helped me decide to become a lawyer. I never imagined that I’d have to spend six years of my legal career defending Wheaton’s right to exist.
Thankfully, that six-year fight came to an end last week.
The struggle began in 2011 when the Obama administration tried to use the Affordable Care Act to force religious organizations to pay for drugs and services that violated their religious beliefs.
Through an unconstitutional mandate, the government tried nine different ways to achieve the same goal: forcing religious schools, orders, nonprofits, and businesses to give up their religious beliefs as the price of admission to life in the public square.
For Wheaton, one of the oldest and most revered Christian liberal arts schools in America, the choice was particularly stark: either violate its Christian faith by allowing its health care plan to provide drugs like the week-after pill, or pay millions of dollars in fines.
It goes without saying that a nonprofit Christian school would not last long when faced with an annual multimillion-dollar religious liberty tab from the government. And it goes without saying that Wheaton would not abandon its faith.
Fortunately, Wheaton was founded by abolitionists in 1860, and it knows a thing or two about fighting on principle. The college hired my firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, to argue its case.
Becket went to the Supreme Court four different times in defense of employers’ religious liberty rights. Each time, we poked holes in the government’s arguments. And each time, we won.
For instance, we forced the Obama administration’s lawyers to admit—both in briefs and at oral argument before the Supreme Court—that it had been attempting to hijack religious employers’ health care plans.
They also admitted that it is indeed possible to achieve wide distribution of contraceptives without hijacking the health plans of Christian schools like Wheaton, or of nuns like the Little Sisters of the Poor who became the unwitting face of the lawsuit.
In 2016, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the government had changed its position and told it to try harder to strike a reasonable balance. Specifically, the government had to find a way to achieve its goals without forcing people of faith to violate their conscience. There is, after all, more than 200 years of precedent for this principle in American history.
The government eventually admitted that its mandate violated federal civil rights laws.
But lawsuits are complicated—they take a long time to start up and are sometimes difficult to wind down. Until last Thursday, Wheaton’s case remained unsettled. The students, teachers, families, and administrators that comprise its Christian community were forced for years to go on as if it were business as usual, all the while uncertain if bureaucrats (either from this administration or a future one) would try yet again to force Wheaton out of the business of Christian education.
But Wheaton soldiered on. And it was rewarded on Thursday with an order from a federal judge in Chicago finding that the federal government had violated Wheaton’s civil rights and ordering it not to try enforcing the mandate against Wheaton ever again.
This is the first permanent injunction issued by a court of law since the Supreme Court’s order in 2016. I think my alma mater would make its most famous alum, the recently passed Billy Graham, proud. As he once said, “Courage is contagious—when a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
The previous administration witnessed this as one nonprofit after another stood up, stiffened their spines, and said “no” to the unconstitutional mandate. In so doing, they stood up for the rights of all Americans to live according to conscience, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Wheaton’s victory is befitting its legacy of fighting for what is right. May the courage of this small college be contagious, and may its success send a signal of hope to those who are still standing, awaiting the victory that is just as much theirs.