EEOC vs. Belmont Abbey — Watch this Case

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Belmont Abbey College is a small Catholic liberal arts college in North Carolina, serving nearly 1500 students. It was founded in 1876 by the monks of the Belmont Abbey, a monastery of the Benedictine Order. The school mission is “to educate students in the liberal arts and sciences so that in all things G-d may be glorified.” It is, without question, a religious institution, guided by the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 2007, the College discovered that its employee health benefits plan inadvertently included coverage for abortion, contraception, and voluntary sterilization. The college president, William Thierfelder, immediately altered the plan, declaring that the school “is not able to and will not offer nor subsidize medical services that contradict the clear teaching of the Catholic Church.” And at that point, several members of the faculty went running to the EEOC, charging “discrimination.”

If you think that government agencies take the First Amendment seriously, you should pay close attention to this case. In March, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed the charge, stating that it was “unable to conclude” that the statutes had been violated. But then, in July, the District Director of the EEOC reversed course, and claimed that Belmont Abbey is discriminating against its employees. Why? The following is an unaltered quote: “By denying prescription contraceptive drugs, Respondent is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral contraceptives. By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women.”

It is somewhat bizarre that the EEOC did not similarly refer to the lack of abortion coverage as “discrimination,” since it is equally true that only females obtain abortions. But this is the least of the evidence that this is little more than an attack on religious freedom, using whatever spurious reasons might be found.

I use the word “attack” advisedly. I do not think this can be characterized merely as a callous disregard for the religious values of the institution in question, as if that would not be sufficiently problematic. No. I think it is obvious to anyone that were there prescription contraceptives for men, Belmont Abbey would not cover them either, and for precisely the same reason. So the EEOC’s decision essentially blames the College for the current state of medical science, a position even the most entrenched bureaucrat would admit is patently ridiculous.

In the words of the EEOC, it does not matter why Belmont Abbey will not cover contraceptives, nor whether the situation would be different were male contraceptives approved for use by the FDA. The religious justification — the First Amendment — is cast aside, because prescription oral contraceptives are currently only available for women.

There are many reasons why this decision’s timing is especially problematic, as well. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Reilly, President of the Cardinal Newman Society, calls this “a bad omen for people of faith.”

The fact that the EEOC decided in favor of the College in March, and reversed its position in July, leads many to conclude, as did the Becket Fund, that this was “presumably at the direction of the new administration in Washington.” The National Catholic Register, under the headline “When ‘Rights’ to the Pill Trump the First Amendment,” highlighted President Obama’s promises of “robust” conscience protection in health care, belied by the EEOC’s actions. Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund, said “When President Obama is at Notre Dame or the Vatican, he talks a good game about protecting conscience. But when his administration goes to Belmont Abbey College and the rubber meets the road, it’s a different story.”

It is easy to imagine that the same reasoning will, in fact, be used to require coverage for abortions. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Senator Rick Santorum said “Since only women get abortions, it’s not hard to see what’s coming for faith-based groups with moral objections to the Obama-Planned Parenthood agenda.” Patrick Reilly explains that the requirement to cover contraceptives comes from the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, “(even though the law concerns pregnant women and does not, by strict interpretation, consider discrimination against all women of childbearing potential).” He then asks: “When will a federal court argue that if insurance coverage to prevent pregnancy is, by inference, mandated by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, then why not abortion to end a pregnancy?”

The biggest threat to our religious freedom, today, is not coming from any church. On the contrary, it comes from a government which considers religious values irrelevant. The ramifications of this case extend far beyond the 1500 students of Belmont Abbey College, whose president says will close rather than provide contraception.

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11 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    In Comment by Bob Miller — October 15, 2009 @ 4:33 pm, I was specifically talking about religious reasons for opposition to tyranny. The misuse of religion to support tyranny is bad, of course, but is not relevant to my comment.

  2. mycroft says:

    It appears by my reading of their website that Belmont Abbey College is a college that is open to all faiths. They are quite open about their Catholic heritage but clearly appear to be following the approach of being a non-sectarian school. Probably for government aid. Once one accepts government aid, it is not a matter of any 1st Amendment rights to practice religion-it is about obeying what general society wants you to do.
    This case does remind me of what YU did regarding homosexuals. I give Belmont Abbey credit that they at least are publicly fighting the requirements rather than accepting the peacefully like YU did.
    If you want the benefits of being non sectarian-see, eg Belmont Abbey and YU you have to accept what society wants you to do.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Garnel Ironheart: I’d like to agree, but various religions, especially the Catholics, have provided some of the worst tyrannies in history and, if you look over at the Middle East, religions are still doing it.

    Ori: Are you comparing the Spanish Inquisition to the NKVD or the SS? Everything I read showed the 20th century secular tyrannies as a lot worse.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > Religious reasons offend the tyrants most of all because these are based in principle and are held with passion and commitment

    I’d like to agree, but various religions, especially the Catholics, have provided some of the worst tyrannies in history and, if you look over at the Middle East, religions are still doing it.

    Chaim, the male can be rendered sterile either through high doses of progesterone or testosterone blockers. However, the result is far different from the birth control pill. With the birth control pill, estrogen and progesterone are used to override the cycle that produces the egg. With anti-testosterone therapy, one loses not only one’s sperm but one’s energy, muscle tone and often can develop deep depression. I can’t imagine any man volunteering for such a therapy.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Tyrants resent anyone who opposes their values and programs for any reason. Religious reasons offend the tyrants most of all because these are based in principle and are held with passion and commitment. We can expect many bureaucratic attempts to hack away at the religious liberties of conservative Americans. Every specious argument imaginable will be enlisted in this cause.

  6. Chaim says:

    Can’t this quoted decisive claim be easily countered by prescription drugs which can be used to render a male sterile, such as female hormone, used to reduce male productivity upon which prostate cancer feeds?

  7. One Christian's perspective says:

    The biggest threat to our religious freedom, today, is not coming from any church. On the contrary, it comes from a government which considers religious values irrelevant. The ramifications of this case extend far beyond the 1500 students of Belmont Abbey College, whose president says will close rather than provide contraception. – Yaakov Menken

    Rabbi Menken is right and I am thankful for him bringing this story to mind. May it stand as a grave warning. This is not only the beginning. Our public schools are entrenched with teachers and college professors who profess secular values and teach them to our children and have done so for years to the point where they cannot see any other way as indicated by the comment: “several members of the faculty went running to the EEOC, charging discrimination .” Not too many decades ago, they would be too embarrased to do so knowing the Christian values of their employer. They would have respected those who held those views even if they did not agree with them. Today, they are a target.

    I can only now imagine Church business offices and religious schools, who now hire someone not only on the basis of their experience and qualifications but also on their profession of faith, to be forced by our secular government to hire people who have no regard for God or people of faith or the Word of God. I am speaking of religious institutions that do not accept funds from the Federal Government for any reason and that all faith based initiatives of reaching out to help all people in need come only from the congregants – this is in addition to tithes and is sometimes called special offerings.

    In Great Britain, several years ago, a Catholic organization, working to place orphans in good homes as adopted children , decided to get out of the “business” when told the children had to be offered to homosexual couples as well. Tell me please, which party benefited most by the religious freedom being stopped ?

    In America, it seems that the only voice that can be heard is that of the non faith group. It is not just religious freedom that is at stake. The moral health of our nation is at stake.

    Yitznewton, this insanity that you dismiss offhand is the very reason Christians take a stand for Israel and the Jewish people.

  8. valuemonitor says:

    This is really a public health and equality in the workplace issue. Women need to be able to control when they’re going to be pregnant in order to be competitive with men at work. Currently, the most effective way to do that is through prescription contraceptives.

    I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to read the New York and California Catholic Charities cases, which were decided against Catholic Charities by strong majorities, and which the US Supreme Court affirmed by refusing to hear them. Past Supreme Court decisions regarding sex discrimination are echoed in these findings. The EEOC has had a policy that not covering prescription contraceptives was sex discrimination since Dec 14, 2000. Sen Santorum’s accusation that this is the ‘Obama-Planned Parenthood agenda’ is simply not consistent with the history of this policy.

  9. Simcha Younger says:

    There is indeed discrimination here, in providing coverage for women which men cannot benefit from.

    Upon review the EEOC will fully endorse the Belmont Abbey policy, and will further prohibit all employers from porviding any coverage which does not apply equally to men and women.

  10. yitznewton says:

    Granted that the idea of this being discrimination against women is odd; but I’m not seeing how this is constitutes an attack on religious freedom. From the Amendment:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    Regarding the ruling, no one’s restricting pursuit of religious interests, i.e. forcing you into or out of a religious activity. If you’re extending medical coverage, you have to extend it equally. If that’s problematic with your beliefs, too bad; do it le-dina, or leave the business! (Apparently they’re planning on doing the latter.)

    See also Dr. Lamm’s justification of YU’s policy regarding homosexual groups. (This is not an endorsement of that position, just by way of example.) Another example: let’s say the Torah would forbid us to go to war in the US Armed Forces. I don’t know if that’s so. In any case, it wouldn’t be accepted as an excuse not to serve. The government is not going to allow a religious body to subvert the norm in dealing with the general population in a way that’s seen as unfair or inappropriate – here, denying what’s considered normal and appropriate coverage.

    In a rights-and-privileges-focused society, we benefit from these, but we also have to deal with providing others with them in our dealings! The cheshbon for how to do that is our problem. This, instead of getting killed for being Jews as in other times and places. I’ll take it.

  11. Garnel Ironheart says:

    The best way to win an argument is to plaster your opponent with all your negative intentions and then condemn him for having those intentions.

    Consider Hollywood’s portrayal of governments and presidents. In any movie or TV show where the president is interested in thought control, elimination of personal freedoms and social engineering, he’s invariably a Republican. Yet in real life it’s the Democrats who are promoting just such an agenda. Big Brother is portrayed as a right wing fascist when in real life political correctness is the domain of the left.

    In this case, these principles are being followed. No, it’s not about bashing religion. It’s about women’s rights and freedoms. Sure it is. In reality it’s another example of the secular agenda of destroying religious freedom while claiming to be increasing it.