To Keep Free of Federal Reins, Wyoming Catholic College Rejects Student Aid

Lander, Wyo. — An insurrection is brewing here at Wyoming Catholic College, a tiny redoubt of cowboy-style Catholicism where students learn about horseback riding and Thomas Aquinas, and take grueling mountain hikes conducted entirely in Latin.

Citing concerns about federal rules on birth control and same-sex marriage, the school decided this winter to join a handful of other religious colleges in refusing to participate in the federal student-aid programs that help about two-thirds of students afford college. For students here, the decision means no federal loans, work-study money or grants to finance their annual $28,000 tuition, which includes housing in gender-segregated dorms and three meals in the school’s lone dining hall.

To the college’s leaders, rejecting government-backed aid was an expensive effort to defend against what they called growing government threats to religious freedoms. If you do not take the money, leaders argue, the government cannot tell you what to do.

“It allows us to practice our Catholic faith without qualifying it,” said Kevin Roberts, the college’s president, a Louisiana transplant who now wears a black cowboy hat to work in this town of 7,500. “It’s clear that this administration does not care about Catholic teaching.”

The young college, whose first students enrolled in 2007, has not yet been accredited, so its students do not qualify for federal loans and have been using private loans. But late last year the school reached a milestone toward becoming accredited, which could have led to access to funding from federal loan programs worth close to 20 percent of its $5 million budget. The vote by the school’s board was unanimous.

The move adds to a national debate over the boundaries between religious liberty and discrimination. Across the country, courts are judging faith-based objections to requirements that health insurance provide birth control and debating whether cake bakers and photographers have a right to refuse to cater to same-sex weddings.

While a few private colleges also decline federal dollars — examples include Christendom College in Virginia, Hillsdale College in Michigan and New St. Andrews College in Idaho — more than two dozen religious schools and universities are among the businesses and religious groups that have filed a fusillade of lawsuits challenging the birth-control coverage required under the Affordable Care Act.

Some have been encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision last year to let Hobby Lobby, a private company, refuse to cover contraceptives under its health insurance for religious reasons. Others say they would like to stop taking federal student aid, but they balk at the cost and question whether it would provide any additional protections not already offered by the Constitution’s guarantees to freedom of religion.

At Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal-arts school in North Carolina, school officials who say they are increasingly concerned about one day being required to provide benefits to same-sex spouses of employees or bathrooms for transgender students have been looking at the financial costs of withdrawing from student-aid programs. The college president, William K. Thierfelder, said the college had determined that it would need a $375 million endowment to cover the loans and grants its 1,550 students would lose. Their current endowment is $10 million.

“We can’t afford to do it right now, but we want to do it,” Dr. Thierfelder said. “We couldn’t support or condone homosexual lifestyle, transgender, this kind of thing. We’re not trying to tell anyone how to live.”

But he said abiding by Catholic teachings about sex, marriage and gender was fundamental to the school’s identity: “This is why we exist. This is why we’re here.”

At Wyoming Catholic College, which prides itself as being “authentically Catholic,” spiritual identity and the restrictions that accompany it are written into the student handbook. Students — 90 percent from outside Wyoming — all enroll in a single program of liberal-arts study that includes sacred texts and Great Books, leadership courses and expeditions into the Wind River mountains.

Curfews are set at 10:30 p.m. during the week. The dress code calls for businesslike attire and forbids men to walk around shirtless, but this being Wyoming, it does allow “dress jeans” in class. Couples are allowed to hold hands on campus and “an occasional hug,” but are advised not to be overly physical. And the college says it supports church teachings on marriage, which forbid premarital sex.

School leaders said the 120 students studying here and their families know what they want from a college, and know what they want from the experience. Students who are openly gay and dating, active gay-rights supporters or transgender “would be contravening church teaching just by being here,” Dr. Roberts said.

About 80 percent of the students receive some kind of financial aid, so the school figured it would lose $650,000 annually in loans and $250,000 in Pell grants that students would have used to pay their tuition. School officials talked to students and parents about the additional financial burdens of getting private loans at higher rates, and asked whether it would be worth it to turn their backs on a revenue source accepted by an overwhelming majority of religious and secular schools. The overwhelming response, the officials said, was “yes.”

Participating in loan programs would have freed up more money for faculty salaries or expanding the nascent campus. For students, federal loans tend to be easier to defer after college, and some do not accrue interest while students are still studying.

The college gives out scholarships and itself provides loans to students, but also urges them to seek help from private banks.

Ultimately, the board said accepting the money would have been a Faustian bargain that could compromise the school’s core beliefs and mission.

“My concern was about the overreach of this administration,” said Richard W. St. Pierre, a board member, who brought up the Hobby Lobby case. “We may find ourselves in a similar position if you take federal money and don’t comply with an executive order.”

Their decision also had a tinge of the Western small-government sentiment that sparks complaints from farmers and ranchers around here about federal sage grouse protections, new rules for hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas fields, and regulations about waterways and land conservation.

“We really didn’t want the federal government meddling in our lives here,” said David S. Kellogg, a Wyoming Catholic board member. “The federal government hands you money and then threatens to withdraw that money if you don’t do what they want.”

Over a lunch of chicken sandwiches and potato chips, several students said they felt the school had made the right decision. Even if funding their education privately ends up costing thousands of dollars more over the lifetime of their loans, they said Wyoming Catholic was still a bargain in the mountains compared with other schools.

“We prefer to stay on the side of siding with our beliefs,” said Matthew Gaddis, 23, a senior from Casper, Wyo.