Pod people: White House vs. the Wheaton College covenant

From the very beginning, some mainstream news organization have — appropriately so — emphasized that many, if not most, progressive religious organizations have not only supported Obamacare, but the controversial Health & Human Services mandate as well.

This raises a logical question: What are the doctrinal fault lines that are dividing religious groups on the many moral issues linked to the mandate?

Obviously, some groups oppose the mandate — period. Catholics oppose its requirement that all forms of contraception be covered. Then there are evangelicals, such as the Hobby Lobby owners, who have no problem with most forms of birth control, but oppose the so-called morning-after pill and other contraceptives that they believe — scientists are split on the issue — induce abortions.

That would seem to be that. However, there is another moral complication that is affecting many doctrinally defined ministries, non-profits and schools that continue to oppose the mandate. Yes, this is the Little Sisters of the Poor camp, which also includes many schools and universities, such as Wheaton College.

More on that in a moment, since this was the topic that drove this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen in.

So what is going on with Wheaton, the Little Sisters, et al.?

This brings us back to the infamous “tmatt trio,” those three doctrinal questions that I have long used — as a journalistic tactic — to probe the differences between warring camps inside various churches. Remember the three questions?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Think about that third question for a moment. In recent decades, churches have been fighting about the moral status of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. At times, it’s hard to remember that progressive and orthodox churches are also divided over the moral status of premarital sex and, in a few cases, even extramarital sex (some liberal theologians have argued that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can even been seen in some acts of infidelity).

This bring’s us back to Wheaton College and the other ministries, non-profits and schools that do not want to cooperate with the HHS mandate in any way. As I wrote the other day, many:

Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities.

Yes, these believers do not want to fund these behaviors that they believe are sinful and they also do not want to cooperate in any way with government efforts to encourage members of these doctrinally defined communities to break the vows or covenants that define these voluntary associations.

This brings us back to Wheaton College and the details of its Community Covenant for faculty, staff and students. Journalists who are covering that story need to read this document, including this chunk:

According to the Scriptures, followers of Jesus Christ will: …

* uphold the God-given worth of human beings, from conception to death, as the unique image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27; Psalm 8:3-8; 139:13-16);

* pursue unity and embrace ethnic diversity as part of God’s design for humanity and practice racial reconciliation as one of his redemptive purposes in Christ (Isa. 56:6-7; John 17:20-23; Acts 17:26; Eph. 2:11-18; Col. 3:11; Rev. 7:9-10);

* uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4);

So what does that have to do with the Hobby Lobby decision and the follow-up nod from the court, a temporary injunction in favor of Wheaton College? The Los Angeles Times put it this way:

On Monday, in its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, the court approved religious exemptions for companies whose owners have religious objections to certain forms of contraception. In their opinions, the justices spoke approvingly of a compromise position the administration had previously adopted that is designed to shield religiously affiliated nonprofit employers from paying directly for contraceptives.

The language in Monday’s decision appeared to signal that the court would uphold the administration’s compromise, which has been challenged by dozens of religious colleges and charities. But in Thursday’s order, the court granted Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant liberal arts school west of Chicago, a temporary injunction allowing it to continue to not comply with the compromise rule.

The college, whose mission statement says it “serves Jesus Christ and advances His Kingdom through excellence in liberal arts and graduate programs,” says its religious precepts forbid it from paying for so-called morning-after pills.

College officials refused even to sign a government form noting their religious objection, saying that to do so would allow the school’s insurance carrier to provide the coverage on its own.

You can find similar language in The New York Times story on the Thursday development, as well as the report in The Washington Post.

Note especially the blunt statement from the distressed Justice Sonia Sotomayor in this piece of the Post story:

… Some of the colleges and organizations say that signing the form authorizes the third parties to provide the contraceptive coverage, making them complicit in actions that offend their religious beliefs.

The ruling Thursday says Wheaton need only file a letter with the federal government stating the college’s religious objections. Presumably, the government then would notify the third party to provide the contraceptives.

“Nothing in this interim order affects the ability of the applicant’s employees and students to obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives,” the order said.

Sotomayor disagreed. She said the injunction “risks depriving hundreds of Wheaton’s employees and students of their legal entitlement to contraceptive coverage.” And since the other ­cases around the country are indistinguishable, she said, the order might as well be national in scope.

Do you see the relevance of the Wheaton Community Covenant? In effect, the government is stepping in to help non-married members of the Wheaton community — note the reference to students — violate the terms of the covenant that they have voluntarily affirmed (some schools require signatures on the document).

So what were the questions that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I ended up discussing? Well there were several. But here are a few important ones that I think reporters need to think about.

Do unmarried Wheaton students and staff members have a legal right to break their promises and to engage in premarital and even extramarital sex, while obtaining the contraceptives of their choice? Of course they do.

Do the leaders of Wheaton College (as well as other non-profits in the Little Sisters centrist camp) have a right to resist efforts by the government to force them to cooperate in these efforts to help students and staffers violate this voluntary doctrinal covenant that defines their community?

Are there other cases in which the government plans to attack doctrinally defined voluntary associations of this kind, requiring their leaders to cooperate in efforts by the state to undermine their work?

So, so, so many questions.

Journalists, the Wheaton College covenant is part of the story. Please read it, then quote it.

Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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