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College joins Catholics on contraception challenge

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Two federal judges have dismissed several challenges this week to President Obama's contraception mandate, but the embattled requirement gained another legal opponent Wednesday when Wheaton College, one of the nation's leading evangelical colleges, said it is going to court.

Wheaton signed on to a lawsuit that the Catholic University of America filed in May — joining more than 50 Catholic dioceses, religious colleges and universities and other organizations that are suing over the mandate that employer health care plans provide free birth control, saying it violates their religious liberty.

U.S. District Judge Warren K. Urbom of Nebraska handed down the first ruling Tuesday, dismissing a state-led challenge because he said seven Republican attorneys general from Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas failed to show that a religious accommodation added by the Obama administration wouldn't apply to them.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in the District of Columbia dismissed a separate challenge from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina on similar grounds.

The Catholic Church, which teaches that all artificial contraception is immoral, has led the charge against the requirement, but evangelical groups also have been coming on board, saying they won't pay for contraceptives that they believe can induce abortions, such as Ella and Plan B.

Catholics and evangelicals insist the fight is about religious liberty, not contraception — which is why Wheaton President Philip Ryken said the college intentionally joined a lawsuit filed by a Catholic school.

"The fact that evangelicals and Catholics are coming together on this battle should be a signal to America that religious liberty is at stake," Mr. Ryken said.

The Department of Justice didn't respond to requests for comment.

The controversy has flowed into the presidential contest. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney seized the chance to denounce Mr. Obama for trampling on the religious freedom. He criticized the administration again Wednesday while campaigning in Ohio.

"I know we are not all Catholic in this room, but I feel like we are all Catholic today in our effort to preserve religious liberty," Mr. Romney said.

The Affordable Care Act requires employers that provide health insurance to cover "essential" benefits without requiring a co-payment. Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that the list would include all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

But after the announcement incited a firestorm of protests from Catholic and other religious groups, Mr. Obama promised that he would accommodate religious hospitals, charities and schools and allow their employees to obtain contraception directly from the insurer.

Religious groups say they won't believe the promise until it's officially on the books. The administration released a notice of proposed rule-making, but hasn't indicated when it will release a final rule that includes the accommodation.

Mr. Ryken — like officials at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio who announced this spring that they would drop student health plans because of the mandate — said Wheaton would end up footing the bill for contraception no matter what because insurers would pass on the cost of providing it to students, staff and faculty.

"We think that is in fact a shell game that does not resolve the problem," Mr. Ryken said. "We should be exempt in the same way churches are."

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