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.