RALEIGH — The president of a North Carolina-based Catholic college says he would rather close his school than comply with an order from the Obama administration requiring the private institution to offer contraception and abortion coverage as part of its employee health insurance plan.
“I hope it would never get this far, but if it came down to it we would close the college before we ever provided that,” William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, told The Washington Times last week.
The controversy could become a microcosm of what is in store if Congress expands government control over health care. Critics of plans by congressional Democrats worry that one-size-fits-all regulations could lead to stringent cost controls and make insurance less adaptable to individuals’ medical preferences.
Last week, senators negotiating a bipartisan health-reform bill removed a section requiring Medicare to finance voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions for seniors who enter nursing homes or whose health changes significantly. Fears arose that these reviews might be used as justification to curtail costly treatments. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and other critics of the president’s health-care agenda called these sessions “death panels” — and senators soon dropped the provision.
The dispute between Belmont and the federal government has raised a separate concern: Mandates requiring uniformity in medical insurance policies could override federal and state conscience protection laws for religious institutions. These laws exempt health care providers that object on religious grounds to providing abortion, sterilization, or other controversial medical procedures from prosecution under anti-discrimination statutes.
“As the government scope of activity increases, you end up with obvious opportunities for compulsion,” said Chris Gacek, a lawyer specializing in regulatory affairs with the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., in a telephone interview. “The way we’re going now at the state and federal level is to make it impossible for people to live up to their consciences. There is something fundamentally inappropriate about that.”
Protesters at town hall events frequently have voiced concerns that an expanded government role could trample other freedoms, including religious liberty.
“With health-care reform looming before the country, this [Belmont] ruling is a bad omen for people of faith. … We can add the threat to religious liberty to the dangers already presented by government-run health care,” wrote Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column.
Catholic League president Bill Donohue recently sent a letter to the Charlotte District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission questioning the timing of the move given the current health-care debate.
“This issue arises at a time when millions of Catholics, led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, are gravely concerned about religious rights being jeopardized under new health care bills,” Donohue said.
Belmont Abbey is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, both of which teach against contraception and abortion. In December 2007, after a faculty member discovered that Belmont Abbey’s medical insurance covered oral contraceptives, abortions, vasectomies, and tubal ligations, the college changed its policy and excluded those procedures.
Thierfelder explained the change of policy at the time in a letter to students and faculty. “The teaching of the Catholic Church on this moral issue is clear,” he wrote. “The responsibility of the College as a Catholic College sponsored by the monks of Belmont Abbey to follow Church teaching is equally clear. There was no other course of action possible if we were to operate in fidelity to our mission and to our identity as a Catholic College.”
Eight faculty members subsequently filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming the new policy amounted to gender discrimination.
In March, the agency sent the college a letter saying the complaint had been dismissed. But Thierfelder has said that the commission reopened the issue last month after officials in Washington reversed the district office’s initial decision.
On July 30, the Charlotte EEOC office ruled that, by denying contraceptive coverage in its employee health plan, the college had discriminated based on gender, and that it could face a lawsuit if it did not rescind the policy.
“By denying prescription contraception drugs, [the college] is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives. By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women,” wrote Reuben Daniels, Charlotte district director for the EEOC.
North Carolina requires employers to cover birth control in health insurance plans but offers an opt-out for religious institutions. At least one of the eight faculty members who filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2007 over Belmont Abbey’s policy argued that the school is not a religious institution and therefore not exempt.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.