Stevan Sheets

Evangelical college's contraception lawsuit proves divisive

On Wheaton campus, some question whether battle over emergency birth control needs to be fought at all

WHEATON, Ill. — Three times each week during the school year, Wheaton College’s 2,400 undergraduates gather at a large chapel on the campus’ west end. Outside the Georgian-style building one sunny Friday in September, students hugged their friends in greeting and fiddled with their cell phones. Once inside and seated at their assigned spots, however, most of the students turned attentive. They raised their hands during an emotive worship song, closed their eyes for prayer and listened to a pastor from Tennessee deliver a sermon on “Finding Our Joy in God the Trinity.”

The door to Edman Memorial Chapel closes promptly at 10:35 a.m., and as chapel begins, student workers with clipboards stand in the balcony and count off the unoccupied seats. There’s a telling kind of tension here: Students attend chapel freely, for the most part, but attendance is also enforced.

Wheaton College is a selective and academically rigorous liberal-arts school, but thrice-weekly mandatory chapel services are just one of countless ways that it is unmistakably a Christian institution, too. (Disclosure: I graduated from Wheaton in 2002.) All students and full-time employees sign a “Community Covenant” that asks them to eschew alcohol and pornography, as well as traits like pride, dishonesty and hypocrisy. Faculty and staff annually reaffirm their commitment to the college’s statement of faith, which “defines the biblical perspective which informs a Wheaton education.” Prominent signs at two entrance points to the suburban Chicago campus bear the motto “For Christ and His Kingdom.”

Wheaton’s distinctly Protestant Christian character has been a core part of its identity since its founding by abolitionist and pastor Jonathan Blanchard in 1860. Now it also at the crux of a lawsuit that has thrust the school into the center of the national debate about religious freedom, sexual ethics and what it means to be a conservative Christian institution in a socially progressive culture. From the outside, Wheaton can look like a unified, even homogenous, community. But its lawsuit has prompted some otherwise sympathetic people — including some of Wheaton’s own faculty, students and alumni — to question whether this is a battle that needs to be fought at all.

I see them continuing down this course of, ‘We’re no longer just an academic institution, we’re a political mouthpiece.

Arik Bjorn

1995 Wheaton graduate

Philip Ryken had been the president of Wheaton College for just two years when, in the summer of 2012, he made a bombshell announcement. With the pro bono help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a combative and publicity-friendly legal firm, the college filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration. The suit challenges a component of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to provide insurance coverage for emergency contraception, a requirement from which churches and other purely religious organizations are exempt. (The Becket Fund also represented Hobby Lobby, the retail chain whose objection to emergency contraception led to a landmark Supreme Court decision last June that said some corporations do not have to pay for insurance coverage of contraceptives that offend their religious beliefs.)

“I was really surprised and very disappointed,” recalled Leah Seppanen Anderson, who had been teaching political science at Wheaton for almost a decade when the college announced the suit. Anderson, whose areas of focus include gender and the politics of health care, was startled that the relatively new president had taken up the case. “My initial response was, this doesn’t seem like where we want to spend our social capital.” 

Blanchard Hall, a landmark historical building on the Wheaton campus.

The Obama administration quickly granted the college a one-year extension of its deadline to comply with the mandate and offered a compromise: The school could fill out a form registering its objection, and would not have to pay for the contraceptive products to which it objects. For Wheaton and other plaintiffs that have filed similar lawsuits, that didn’t solve the problem. They said filling out the form would automatically trigger provision of the drugs (insurance companies would pay the costs) and would therefore leave the school morally complicit. In July, the case made national news when the Supreme Court issued an unsigned opinion stating that Wheaton does not have to fill out the form while it awaits a final ruling. (Critics pointed out that Wheaton previously included emergency contraception in its insurance plan; the college has said it was an oversight corrected as soon as it was discovered.)

Many of the institutions that have filed suits like Wheaton’s are Catholic and categorically object to all contraception. Wheaton’s objection is much narrower. Like Hobby Lobby, it resists only 4 of the 20 types of birth control required by the ACA: the emergency contraceptives ella, Plan B and their generic versions. The college argues that these contraceptives technically can act as abortifacients by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg and that, under the auspices of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it should be exempt from the requirement to provide them to employees.

The case has divided alumni. Arik Bjorn, a 1995 graduate, is among 23 alumni who placed a strongly worded letter objecting to the lawsuit in the school newspaper in 2012. “Wheaton has broken trust with me and with others,” he said recently. “I see them continuing down this course of, ‘We’re no longer just an academic institution, we’re a political mouthpiece.’ ”

Though it acknowledges a “vocal minority opposition,” the college administration said by email that “the vast majority of our alumni are supportive.” Alumni Rob and Rebecca Wolgemuth said they continued donating to the college without hesitation after hearing about the suit. “It reinforced our confidence in the leadership,” Rebecca said. “To suggest that churches are the only religious institutions that could have a moral conscience or an objection to something is really such a slippery slope.” The college said there has been no overall decline in donations.

The insurance plan at issue does not affect students, and so far the suit has not been a major topic of conversation among them, according to Katelyn Skye Bennett, a sophomore sociology major who wrote a front-page story on the Supreme Court opinion for this year’s school newspaper. (Bennett said she personally agrees with Wheaton’s “rather be safe than sorry” approach to emergency contraception.) The energetic board of the Christian Feminist Club says it hopes to host some kind of discussion on the topic this year to increase awareness. Wheaton’s community covenant forbids premarital sex, and by all accounts the guideline is overwhelmingly obeyed, not just out of loyalty to the college, but because of sincerely held religious beliefs. In other words, for most students the emergency contraception question is purely academic. 

There’s a demonstrated lack of confidence in their female employees, and that is really demeaning.

Leah Seppanen Anderson

Wheaton political science professor

Wheaton and the Becket Fund seem determined to keep the conversation about the lawsuit focused on religious freedom. To be sure, it is an issue with serious potential consequences for the school. Many of the professors here seem to view the suit as a kind of defensive measure, intended to establish the college’s bona fides as a distinctly religious institution deserving of exemptions to new laws that encroach on its long-held values. In particular, they surmise, the college is concerned that in the future it will be forced to hire noncelibate LGBT people. (Out LGBT Christians who are committed to celibacy are increasingly accepted in evangelical circles; Wheaton, in fact, recently hired a self-identified celibate lesbian as a ministry associate in the chaplain’s office.)

“There was a long game going on, in addition to a short game,” said Bryan McGraw, a political-science professor who described himself as “broadly sympathetic” to Wheaton’s position. As McGraw pointed out, the worst-case scenario for Wheaton may be Bob Jones University v. United States, a 1983 Supreme Court case in which the judges ruled that the IRS could revoke a religious university’s tax-exempt status if the institution violated federal anti-discrimination policy. It’s an issue that is clearly on the minds of other Christian colleges. The president of evangelical Gordon College signed a widely publicized letter from faith leaders on the topic this summer to President Obama.

But if the case now known as Wheaton College v. Burwell was intended as a precautionary parry, say critics, it is one being executed on dangerously rickety scientific and moral scaffolding. For one thing, Wheaton’s assertion that emergency contraception causes abortion is, to put it generously, far from settled. Wheaton, like many anti-abortion groups, points out that the FDA’s own labels say ella and Plan B may affect implantation of a fertilized egg. But doctors are increasingly doubtful of that idea. “If these medications don’t in fact do what [Wheaton officials] are religiously opposed to, then there’s no clash between their religious beliefs and the provisions of medicine women need,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami who has been critical of the suit. “You’re granting them an exemption for no reason whatsoever.”

Wheaton stated in an email, “Our decision was based on a careful review of the medical literature by scientists and medical ethicists who reviewed primary sources.” (The college’s media-relations office agreed to answer a small number of questions by email but declined to make a member of the administration available for an interview. The Becket Fund replied to a request for an interview with a brief written statement.)

Ryken has held several town hall discussions for faculty and staff about the suit and has convened a faculty advisory board. But some employees are still frustrated: If emergency contraception incontrovertibly causes abortions, then can’t employees be trusted to use their own moral judgment to avoid it? “There’s a demonstrated lack of confidence in their female employees, and that is really demeaning,” Anderson said.

The shakiness of Wheaton’s scientific position is compounded by the fact that there is far less moral agreement in the evangelical community about emergency contraception than there is about abortion, which most evangelicals fiercely oppose. Near the end of the summer, a frustrated Anderson met with about a dozen female faculty members to discuss the issue.

“There’s this external, out-facing argument to the federal government that ‘we believe these to be abortifacients, and this is part of our core religious identity,’ ” she said. “As an insider at Wheaton, I feel like we have not had that conversation.” She and most of the women she spoke with agreed that in their own lives, they would probably err on the side of not using emergency contraception. But Anderson said she’s simply not comfortable with the college making that decision for her, let alone presenting it to the world as a definitive evangelical value. “It seems like people at best aren’t sure, so why are we drawing the line on the sand on this issue?” 

I think we need a better conversation about which battles we fight and which we don't.

Beth Felker Jones

Wheaton theology professor

Wheaton's Bill Graham Center.
DuPage County

“I have some mixed sympathies,” said Beth Felker Jones, a Wheaton theology professor whose office is on the top floor of the college’s Billy Graham Center. Jones described herself as committed to religious freedom and to the college’s adherence to “traditional Christian sexual ethics.” But, she added, “I think we need a better conversation about which battles we fight and which we don’t.”

She is also frustrated by the fact that the case seems to have confused the public about whether mainstream evangelicals oppose birth control as a whole, which they have not done since the 1960s.

“One hundred years ago, [contraception] was considered a grotesque moral crime, and today it’s a government mandate, it’s a human right,” said Allan Carlson, a conservative historian and author of the 2011 book Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973. “That’s a huge shift.” Carlson’s book traces the surprising turns in evangelical attitudes toward both contraception and abortion over time: Leaders opposed both in the early 20th century, but by midcentury, prominent evangelist Billy Graham told reporters he could “find nothing in the Bible to forbid birth control.”

But Carlson and other observers wonder if tolerance for contraception among evangelicals is starting to wane. Some young evangelicals, on Wheaton’s campus and elsewhere, are beginning to question “contraceptive culture” more broadly. “Students are recognizing that something has gone wrong with how we think about sex and babies and married life and whether we can and should plan every little thing, whether you have to have a certain amount of money” to have children, Jones, a mother of four, said. “It’s right that students have recognized that something has gone wrong. But I think adopting the Roman Catholic solution here is theologically problematic, and I don’t think it’s good for women.”

Some faculty are also asking another question that they say is deeply related: If Wheaton is committed to nurturing young life, then why doesn’t the school offer paid parental leave? “There’s a tension between what we claim we’re about, being for human life and for children and for families ... and then when the rubber meets the road on things like parental leave,” said Noah Toly, director of Wheaton’s urban-studies program. He was part of a group of faculty members who formed a task force on the issue last fall; the administration then hired a consulting firm to look into the issue, but the task force is still awaiting the firm’s findings. “I would love for us to say, ‘We actually have the most generous parental-leave policy,’ but we’re not even in the ballpark right now,” Toly said. “I’d like to think that what [the delay] means is they’re deliberating on how to get our policy in that ballpark.” 

Theologically, we're committed to being in the world but not of the world. Figuring out what that means in any particular case is always difficult.

Beth Felker Jones

Wheaton theology professor

On August 22, the Obama administration released new regulations on the contraceptive mandate, meant to comply with the Supreme Court opinion in July: Instead of filling out a form to register their objection, institutions like Wheaton could write a simple letter to claim their exemption. Wheaton has not issued a formal response yet, but the Becket Fund seems inclined to fight on. “It is disappointing that, even in its eighth version of the Mandate, the government is still claiming the right to decide who is religious enough for protection,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the firm, wrote in an email.

As the government has issued accommodation after accommodation, Wheaton and the Becket Fund’s objections have become almost as technical as the arguments about what, exactly, constitutes an abortion. Critics like Corbin, the University of Miami law professor, point out that if merely writing a letter represents a “substantial burden” — the standard for exemption required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — then this could allow almost any employer to claim exemptions from any law. Even sympathetic observers wonder whether the college can successfully argue they are being overburdened by simply writing a letter. “I wouldn’t place a lot of money on the college winning,” McGraw said.

No matter the outcome of the case, Wheaton’s choice to become so prominently involved in it will continue to prompt conversations within its own walls about its priorities, its reputation and the deep complexities of its character as a distinctly evangelical institution. “Theologically, we’re committed to being in the world but not of the world,” said Jones, the Wheaton theology professor, echoing a passage from the Book of John that has become something of a slogan for American evangelicalism. “Figuring out what that means in any particular case is always really difficult.” 

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