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Tribune illustration (July 1, 2014)

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted Wheaton College a temporary stay in its fight against the federal health care law’s contraception mandate and will hear arguments Wednesday from lawyers representing the school and the White House about whether the injunction should continue.

The court’s decision in favor of the west suburban evangelical school came hours after its ruling Monday that closely held for-profit companies could be exempt from the same mandate on religious grounds. The mandate for nonprofits was scheduled to go into effect Tuesday.

“All Wheaton has asked for is protection while it litigates the case,” said Mark Rienzi, the lawyer representing Wheaton in the case.

Exactly 100 businesses, schools and organizations, 51 of them nonprofit, have sued the Obama administration over the mandate that employers provide health benefits that include all prescription contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

If the stay is lifted and Wheaton opts to ignore the mandate and disregard the accommodation, it could face fines as high as $35 million a year, Rienzi said.

The Supreme Court for the first time Monday said a for-profit business owned by devout Christians can refuse to pay for some contraceptives for its female employees under the Affordable Care Act.

In that ruling, justices suggested that the government find another way to cover the cost, pointing to the Obama administration’s work-around for certain religious nonprofits in which insurers would provide and pay for the coverage, offset in some cases by a reduction in federal fees.

Wheaton would resist such an accommodation, Rienzi said.

“Because the government would require Wheaton to sign a form authorizing, directing, obligating, and incentivizing other parties to provide the contraceptives in Wheaton's place, Wheaton can't instruct someone to do things that it cannot do itself,” Rienzi said.

Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago Law School, said the fact that the justices pointed to that accommodation as a less restrictive way of covering the cost of contraception for companies that object does not bode well for the nonprofits with pending cases, he said.

“You can’t claim the paperwork is a substantial burden on your free exercise,” Leiter said. “The implication of (Monday’s ruling) is if those lawsuits get to the Supreme Court, they’re not going to get any traction.”

While the Roman Catholic Church objects to all forms of contraception, many Protestant institutions do not mind covering several forms of birth control, including prophylactics, birth control pills and sterilization procedures.

But drugs and devices such as implanted intrauterine devices and morning-after pills that stop the release of an egg from an ovary, block fertilization or prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus would violate Wheaton’s religious principles because some evangelical Christians equate it to abortion.

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