Founded in 1959 in Bismarck, North Dakota by the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation, Mary College later became the University of Mary and now serves over 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students in multiple locations across the state and beyond, including in Rome. But the institution has never varied from its commitment to be “faithfully Christian, joyfully Catholic, and gratefully Benedictine.” And while proclaiming that “we welcome and serve persons of all faiths,” the University is anchored in its commitment to Christ, as announced on its website.
As a Christian university, we strive to accomplish our mission in faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We regard each human person as created in the image and likeness of God, gifted with life and dignity. We seek to be agents of cultural renewal in our time and place—courageous advocates for justice and peace. Our Christian commitment is born from and sustained by the encounter of the Risen Lord, who came not to be served but to serve. As He humbly washed the feet of His disciples on the night before He died, so we seek to serve one another.
You might say that the University’s very ability to function is grounded in the exercise of its constitutionally protected religious liberty—which came under attack beginning in 2016 with a proposed Obamacare rule, later to be expanded by the Biden Administration, that would force health-care providers to perform gender-transition surgeries, and force employers to provide coverage for such surgeries and for abortion in their employee health insurance plans.
For the tiny University of Mary to stand up to the might and resources of the federal government was a daunting prospect, but the threat was existential. “We did not take this course of action lightly,” said Monsignor James Shea, president of the University, “and were under no illusions that it was a trivial matter to challenge a powerful agency…. But we felt we had no choice.” Joining with several other plaintiffs and aided by Becket Fund attorneys, for six long years the University has battled the federal government.
Finally, on December 9, 2022, the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s permanent injunction blocking enforcement of the rule against the plaintiffs. Commenting on the decision, Becket senior counsel Luke Goodrich observed, “This is a common-sense ruling that protects patients, aligns with best medical practice, and ensures doctors can follow their Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’”
It is also a huge victory for the University of Mary and for religious liberty in America. The Biden administration has 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court, although reversal seems unlikely. But the war continues, with no end in sight to the potential challenges to religious liberty—which is why it becomes imperative that we focus not just on winning in court but also on winning hearts and minds.
Monsignor Shea spoke several months ago about how we might do so. The occasion was the 2022 award ceremony for Becket’s prestigious Canterbury Medal, an honor previously bestowed on such notables as Robert P. George, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Eric Metaxas, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Mary Ann Glendon, Elie Wiesel, and IOF’s own honorary board member, Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Upon receiving this year’s medal, Monsignor Shea stated,
Let’s just consider for a moment the possibility that modern progressive secularists might be harassing us not out of malice, at least not at first, but because we haven’t convinced them that we’re for real, that there’s such a thing as fierce, unyielding allegiance to the invisible world.
They just can’t believe that we’re for real, because otherwise how could they think that we would trade in our ancient beliefs for some weird, new religion with doctrines and precepts like these?:
The Little Sisters of the Poor have to pay for my morning-after pills or else they can’t care for the dying.
The University of Mary and the Religious Sisters of Mercy have to pay for my sex change or else they can’t provide education or health care.
A religion with such beliefs is literally unbelievable, and yet it comes at us furiously, armed with inquisitions and excommunication, banishing our core convictions straight out of the American Constitutional order, seeding and ripening the bitter fruit of division and alienation. “Who would believe what we have heard?” (Isaiah 53:1).
There must be some kind of misunderstanding.
So what could we do to convince an unbelieving world with clarity that we really exist?
How about if we began to wave our arms and say something like this: we see your compelling state interest in dignity, health, equality, and freedom… and we’ll raise you double. Your regulations and rules claim to achieve certain ends in regard to dignity, health, equality, and freedom, but we have a body of practices and beliefs about sex, marriage, and parenting that achieve the same ends in a more effective way, in a way that better supports the vulnerable and children and those who are suffering the most, and we have empirical data to support our position.
Moreover, you tell us not to hate people with gender dysphoria, but how could we ever hate them? How could we ever bear rancor in our hearts for women and men who carry in their lives and personal experience such pain and bewilderment? You want us to be tolerant, but we won’t be tolerant. We can do much better than tolerance. Instead of just tolerating people, we’ll rush out to meet them, we’ll embrace them as they are. We’ll say, “Hello. I won’t pay for your sex change surgery, but that doesn’t mean that you’re a bothersome problem, that you’re my enemy. And those who tell you that I’m your enemy are lying to you. I’ll listen to you and care for you as long as I can and in every way that I can. You are not a problem. You are my brother, my sister, and God put you in my life for a purpose. In darkness and confusion, you can count on me for genuine support and to speak the truth in love.”
Thank you, Monsignor Shea and the University of Mary, for standing firm and for sharing your wisdom as we likewise seek to defend religious liberty while speaking the truth in love.