Wheaton College gets big religious liberty win, which inspires a case of news-media crickets

Several years ago, there was a mini-wave of mainstream media coverage when a variety of Christian ministries and institutions of higher learning took risky stands against the Health and Human Services mandate that required most religious institutions to offer their employees, and often students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."

The problem, of course, is that members of most of these religious communities had accepted, and in most cases signed, covenants defending centuries of doctrines on marriage and sexuality. To varying degrees, some or all of these HHS demands violated doctrines that leaders of these institutions had promised to defend.

One high-profile case involved Wheaton College, a famous evangelical Protestant school near Chicago. Wheaton leaders refused to buckle under government pressure and kept fighting in the courts -- a process that drew coverage in news outlets such as USA Today, The Washington Post and, logically enough, the nearby Chicago Tribune (check out this Google News search for examples).

So what happened -- in terms of news coverage -- when Wheaton won a crucial district-court victory upholding the college's First Amendment rights?

To find out, click on the video at the top of this post (or just click here).

Ever since that ruling, your GetReligionistas have been watching to see what kind of mainstream coverage there would be about this story. Activists at the conservative NewsBusters website were doing the same thing and published this summary: "Not News: Wheaton College Wins Permanent Injunction Against ObamaCare Contraception Mandate." It noted:

During the past several days, the press mentioned Wheaton College in Illinois when a former student was arrested for multiple burglaries, and when there were new developments relating to a football team hazing incident. On the positive side, the college's partnership with a school for children with disabilities got coverage, as of course did Wheaton's most famous graduate, the just-passed Rev. Billy Graham. But there hasn't been a word in the national establishment press about the Christian college's victory over the Obamacare contraception mandate -- a victory which should ripple though all remaining related cases.

Of course, this crucial update in a national-level case did receive all kinds of attention in alternative "conservative" news outlets. The Washington Examiner published a report that opened like this:

A district court ruled that the federal government can’t force a small Christian college to provide reproductive services such as the morning-after pill in its healthcare plans because it violates the college's religious beliefs.
The ruling ... caps a five-year battle between the Illinois-based Wheaton College and the Department of Health and Human Services over Obamacare’s birth control mandate. The ruling comes as President Trump’s efforts to scale back the mandate have been challenged in court.
George W. Bush appointee Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued the ruling. It protects Wheaton from any future application of HHS’ mandate, according to a statement from the nonprofit law firm Becket, which typically focuses on religious liberty cases and represented Wheaton.
The case was filed in 2012 after Wheaton declined to offer services such as the morning-after pill in its health plans because it violated the college's beliefs.

It's no surprise that the Donald Trump administration has come down on the side of the religious traditionalists, in this case. The Examiner article noted:

Regarding Wheaton, the Trump administration agreed that the university’s religious rights were being hindered by the mandate, according to Dow’s order.
“Wheaton should never have had to go to court to protect its rights in the first place,” said Becket attorney Diana Verm, who represented the school. “This order ensures we won’t have to come back.”

As you would expect, there's a chance that alumni of Wheaton College (and similar institutions) might be interested in this case. For example, see this Daily Signal commentary by Wheaton grad Diana Verm, a member of the legal team at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who was involved in the case. The headline: "Obama Mandate Threatened My College’s Right to Exist. Here’s How Religious Liberty Won."

So what is going on here? Why isn't this court win a valid news story, in keeping with the mainstream press coverage of earlier landmark moments in the Wheaton case?

I fear that, once again, we may be seeing a fascinating -- old-fashioned First Amendment radicals would say "disturbing" -- development in journalism.

While a rock-ribbed defense of First Amendment rights -- for everyone, left and right -- used to be a key element of liberalism, as traditionally defined in American political thought, it would appear that this is no longer the case.

All of a sudden, "free speech" and "religious liberty" (but not freedom of the press, thank God) have been locked inside scare quotes. Thus, journalism about wins for the wrong kinds of First Amendment rights is something for the Internet-era "conservative" media to handle.

Thus, the crickets.

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