Monday, September 23, 2013

OBU Sues USA Over "Abortion Pill Mandate"

As we speculated last week, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group, filed a lawsuit Friday against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on behalf of OBU and three other Christian colleges in Oklahoma.  The suit alleges that an administrative rule the HHS issued in January 2012 violates the universities' First and Fifth Amendment rights.

The HHS Mandate, one of many bureaucratic rules across the government related to the implementation of the health insurance reform law, immediately met fierce resistance from the Catholic hierarchy and a number of Protestant religious liberty advocates.  Both before and since the HHS made accommodations so that insurers, rather than employers themselves, would bear the costs of contraceptive measures that might violate certain employers' religious beliefs, dozens of lawsuits representing several hundred plaintiffs have been filed.

Personally, I see some compelling reasons to oppose this action.
  • For one thing, it is needlessly divisive.  While many alumni/ae are no doubt supportive of OBU's lawsuit, many alumni/ae will be disappointed and angry.
  • Second, this a giant slap in the face to employees, particularly women, who up to this point have believed that they, not the president or the trustees, should decide what contraceptives they can access through the university's group health insurance plan.
  • Third, there's no real upside for OBU.  There are already more than enough cases working their way through the federal courts on this matter. If this was really important, OBU should have had a conference call with trustees and launched this action in early 2012.  At this point, it's just piling on.  There is no chance that this lawsuit will ever be decisive or relevant to the ultimate legal or political resolution of the HHS Mandate.
  • Furthermore, it's ridiculous to assume that all, or even most, Southern Baptists believe the morning after pill is ethically identical to, say, an abortion at 6 or 8 weeks gestation.  Along these lines, it's dubious at best and egregiously dishonest at worst for OBU's PR office to try to sell this as opposition to the "abortion pill mandate." [EDIT: OBU's website changed the headline to "OBU Joins Fight for Religious Liberty." I wonder who else complained...]
  • Since this action comes so late in the public political and legal debate over the HHS Mandate, many will interpret this action as blatantly partisan and ideological rather than arising out of a legitimate religious or theological concern that has any kind of consensus among OBU stakeholders, and particularly among the faculty and staff who will be affected.
Even so, after consulting with several people who have shown the most interest and involvement in the Save OBU project since its inception, I do not think Save OBU should take a position on this matter and I do not intend to condemn it or the administrators and trustees who advocated for it.  This matter is substantially different from the kinds of concerns we have raised about academic freedom and ethical administration.

Institutions have a right to preserve their own autonomy and prerogatives.  While it seems to me that most religious moderates are satisfied with the cumulative accommodations the federal government has made since the initial outcry over the HHS Mandate on January 20, 2012, I am sensitive to the criticism that the original mandate was tone-deaf to religious liberty concerns.  I understand why President David Whitlock and the OBU trustees took this action.  But I hope there will be a healthy debate among students, staff, and alumni about precisely what interest OBU has in the case and, specifically, whether an "abortion pill mandate" actually exists.

Coincidentally and for the sake of full disclosure, I have a professional and scholarly interest in evangelicals' attitudes regarding contraception.  If you are interested, you can read some of my thoughts in this recent Associated Baptist Press commentary.

I realize that many will disagree with the decision not to oppose the administration and trustees in this matter because there will be significant overlap between people who support Save OBU's efforts and people who would prefer that their alma mater did not join a late, irrelevant lawsuit over the "abortion pill mandate."  This lawsuit will divide OBU constituents, but I hope those of us who want OBU to remain a legitimate liberal arts university will be continually united against our alma mater's very real and ongoing threats to its heritage and identity.


  1. "For one thing, it is needlessly divisive. While many alumni/ae are no doubt supportive of OBU's lawsuit, thousands of alumni/ae will be disappointed and angry."
    I would love to see your proof that thousands of alumni are against OBU's actions against the "abortion pill mandate".
    I'll remind you. OBU is a EVANGELICAL, Southern Baptist University. Its primary responsiblity is to teach the truths of scripture, period!

    1. Hi, Anonymous.

      The math is pretty simple. Let's say there are 25,000 OBU alumni. The HHS Mandate polled about 40%. Let's be generous and say that among white evangelicals, that number was only 20%. (Of course, not all OBU alumni are white evangelicals, but for the sake of discussion I'll grant that it might be a reasonable approximation.) That means that something like 5,000 OBU alumni support the HHS Mandate. I bet that's a conservative estimate (no pun intended).

      No one is denying OBU's evangelical or Baptist identity. I would love to hear your ideas about what "truths of scripture" are at issue in this lawsuit. Unless you have replaced the Bible with the Republican Party platform. You wouldn't be the first so-called Baptist to have done so.


We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.