Wheaton College and other distinctively Christian institutions are faced with a near and present threat to religious liberty.
Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate that the insurance plans for religious institutions (except churches) must provide coverage for all government-approved contraceptives. The list of required contraceptives includes abortifacient drugs -- "morning after" and "week after" pills that claim the life of a fertilized egg.
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During the period for public debate, the HHS received more than 200,000 comments objecting that the contraceptive mandate would violate the First Amendment rights of anyone who believed -- for religious reasons -- in the sanctity of human life.
This would be true not only for Roman Catholics who oppose all forms of contraception, but also for Protestants and others who believe that the use of contraception for the purpose of abortion is immoral.
The HHS secretary has been unresponsive to these concerns, and, in fact, has testified to Congress that she did not consider legal precedents for religious liberty in formulating her mandate. In January, she announced that the HHS regulations would be enacted without amendment.
Catholic charities, Christian colleges and other religious organizations still would be compelled to cover contraception in their health insurance plans. And the coverage list still would include abortion-inducing drugs.
In February, these regulations were finalized without amendment. Subsequently, the administration has proposed to offer certain religious groups some sort of accommodation. According to the proposal (which has not yet been enacted), Christian organizations would not have to pay for contraception and abortion; instead, their insurance companies would offer these services for free.
Unfortunately, the proposed accommodation fails to address the religious liberty issues at the heart of the controversy over the HHS regulations. Even if we are not paying for it, institutions like Wheaton College still would be required to cover abortifacient drugs, in violation of our religious principles. Practically speaking, we would still be paying for them, too, as insurance companies inevitably pass along their costs to their customers.
The effect of these regulations on Wheaton College may be dramatic. We are unwilling to compromise our Christian convictions. Will we face punitive fines? Be compelled to abandon medical coverage for our employees?
It is important to understand that Wheaton College is a pervasively Christian institution. Every member of our campus -- faculty, staff and student -- makes a commitment to live a distinctively Christian lifestyle. Our Community Covenant, as we call it, includes embracing the sanctity of life. As Christians, all of us agree not to commit abortion, alongside other actions we regard as sinful.
Many Americans disagree with our convictions, as is their right. What should not be in dispute, however, is that colleges like Wheaton have the freedom -- guaranteed by the United States Constitution -- to carry out our mission in a way that is consistent with our religious principles.
A better approach would be for the government to expand the exemption that churches enjoy to include all religious institutions that have a moral objection to contraception and/or abortion. It is not just churches that have religious rights, but all Americans who gather in voluntary association for religious purposes, such as Christian education.
In effect, the proposed accommodation would establish two tiers of religious groups in America: groups that have full religious freedom and groups that don't.
It remains to be seen whether the Department of Health and Human Services will be compelled to amend its insurance regulations. Perhaps Congress will enact legislation that more thoroughly protects religious liberty; several proposals are under consideration.
Perhaps the court system will provide a judicial remedy; already half a dozen religious organizations have filed suit, and more lawsuits may be on the way.
In any case, Americans who value liberty should hope that a remedy is found. The freedom of religion is one of our first freedoms -- a freedom that comes before all others. It should not be infringed upon, therefore, but protected.
• Philip Graham Ryken is president of Wheaton College.