Politics & Policy

The HHS Mandate: Not an Academic Debate

Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College
Evangelicals and Catholics are suing the government together for their religious liberty.

‘What Martin Luther tore asunder, the Department of Health and Human Services has brought together,” Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, quotes one lawmaker as saying to him this week on Capitol Hill.

The reaction was in response to the news that the Illinois evangelical college would be joining the Catholic University of America in suing the Department of Health and Human Services over its contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drug mandate, issued under the regulatory power afforded it by President Obama’s health-care law; Wheaton is being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The Reformation reference was obviously an overstatement, Ryken quickly adds, but it does speak to the significance of the “co-belligerent” band that has formed in response to the need to protect conscience rights from coercion by the federal government.

#ad#The mandate has been on Wheaton’s radar screen since last August, when the draft regulation was first announced. “And the concern has grown as the crisis has remained unresolved,” President Ryken says. “By providing an exemption for churches, the federal government has created two classes of religious institutions in America: those that have full protection for their religious freedom and those that don’t.”

“The most disturbing thing to me,” explains Ryken, who was a Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia before he became president of Wheaton, “was the government’s provision of a ‘safe harbor’ that would defer for one year the implementation of the mandate — and presenting that as somehow being a reasonable accommodation of religious liberty. I found that offensive — the hope that we would change our religious convictions over the course of the intervening year, or that religious convictions had somehow been honored if you violated them later rather than sooner.” Ryken was echoing the immediate and consistent reaction of Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the January ruling. “It was clear to me,” Ryken adds, “that there was no understanding of the true nature of religious liberty in the administration.”

For Wheaton, the violation of conscience lies in the inclusion of abortion-inducing drugs in the HHS mandate — further evidence that at the heart of the debate is not access to contraception but the erosion of religious liberty. “We were surprised that the federal government is using the term ‘contraception’ to refer to drugs that are widely recognized as having an abortive effect,” Ryken explains. “The secretary of Health and Human Services has been on record publicly as saying these are drugs that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. For us that means they are over a moral line that we are committed not to cross.” Students, faculty, and staff of Wheaton have signed a Community Covenant that affirms “the God-given worth of human beings, from conception to death.”

Between meetings on Capitol Hill, Ryken tells me: “My responsibility as the president of a college is to represent the issues of concern to our college and do everything in my power to ensure that we are able to continue to fulfill our religious mission.”

“This has not been a public cause for us,” he says. “We have sought behind the scenes throughout the past year to raise our concerns in a way that we thought would be respectful of governing authority.”

John Garvey expresses it really well,” Ryken said of Catholic University’s president. “We’re filing this lawsuit reluctantly, as a last resort.”   

Although Republican candidate Mitt Romney used his campaign platform this week to address the mandate issue — announcing that “we’re all Catholics today” (for which he received a standing ovation) — Ryken makes clear that Wheaton does “not regard this as a partisan issue, and we’re not exploiting it for partisan purposes.” He emphasizes: “We’re not seeking to mobilize people to lobby the government. We’re not trying to manipulate a media effect. We’re just trying to act with integrity, and trying to communicate clearly about that with our own community.”

“I think it’s a fairly pervasive attitude in our culture that people with religious convictions should really get along with the program, whatever the program is — in this case, the HHS mandate,” Ryken observes. He worries that the principle that “even if you disagree with a point of view it’s very important to defend the right of someone else to have that point of view” is “not as widely valued as it needs to be for us to have a flourishing democracy” in the United States today.

Ryken adds that “even if the HHS mandate had no effect on evangelical institutions, it would still be important to me to be supportive of Roman Catholic institutions if there were invitations and opportunities to be supportive.” He points out that his own religious tradition has “clear statements on freedom of conscience, as inviolable,” underscoring the deep nature of his call to defend it.

Ryken is unsure what this all means for the future of health insurance at Wheaton, as the mandate’s August 1 implementation date approaches. (Wheaton does not qualify for the one-year “safe harbor” he finds so offensive, for technical calendar reasons that underscore the illusory and arbitrary aspect of the insulting, cynical attempt to keep the HHS mandate from being an election issue.)

“I am only moderately engaged in political issues,” Wheaton’s president adds, “and so it has been interesting to observe how precious liberties appear to me when they are in danger of being taken away. This has sort of awakened for me a latent passion for religious liberty. And I think plenty of our board members would say the same thing.”

“I was at Salisbury Cathedral about ten days ago,” says Ryken, who has degrees from the Westminster Theological Seminary and Oxford University. “And they have one of four extant copies of Magna Carta,” in which, he was reminded, “the very first freedom articulated is religious liberty.”

“Everything else flows from religious liberty, or is built around it,” Ryken observes. “Therefore you adjust and accommodate other things around that freedom. You don’t adjust and accommodate that freedom around other things that are more fundamental, because nothing else is.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a graduate of the CatholicUniversityof America.

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