EEOC vs. Belmont Abbey, Continued

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I am honored that Professor David Neipert, one of the faculty members who initiated the EEOC complaint against Belmont Abbey College, saw fit to respond to my earlier article on this topic (as it appeared on the Baltimore Sun’s “In Good Faith” religion blog). Given his personal involvement in this case, it is obvious that he begins with a far greater knowledge of its particulars, and I appreciate his sharing his perspective of the facts.

Here are the key points that he has made, to the best of my understanding:

1. The status of Belmont Abbey College as a religious institution is questionable. This is buttressed by the fact that the College “advertised itself as an equal opportunity employer and freely accepted funding that was not available to religious institutions.” Additionally, the majority of its faculty, staff, students, and alumni are not Catholic.

2. The college offered coverage for these services for 26 years, “indicating that this was a change of a deliberate policy.” It was then done immediately, unilaterally, and without discussion, and the College refused to negotiate.

3. It is not the eight faculty members, but the school, that is attacking religious freedom. “Forcing us to abide by a Catholic approved health plan makes no more sense than prohibiting a Catholic plumber from eating a Pork sandwich for lunch if he works at a Jewish hospital.” Prof. Neipert was assured that he would “not be expected to adopt Catholic practices and that not being Catholic would not affect my career in any way.”

Let us address each of these in turn.

In order to question Belmont Abbey’s status as a religious institution, Prof. Neipert conflates two entirely different standards, from two vastly different sections of the law. He writes that “the college actually went to the federal court of appeals arguing that it was not religious in order to obtain state funding.” The decision in that case, however, states that “in the charter of the College, the fourth stated purpose speaks of Christian inspiration, fidelity to the Christian message and of reflection upon the growing treasury of human knowledge in the light of the Catholic faith.” [These four purposes are apparently drawn directly from Pope John Paul II’s definition of a Catholic college.] The decision further quotes from the faculty handbook to the effect that BAC is a “Catholic institution.”

On the contrary, in that case the question was whether the state could legally provide tuition grants and scholarships to students attending Christian colleges in order to receive an education in the liberal arts. “A three-judge court held that the two colleges in question, although they had religious ties, were not so pervasively religious that their secular activities could not be separated from their sectarian ones; and that the program did not involve excessive entanglement on the part of the state with the religiously affiliated colleges, so that application of the scholarship program to the colleges did not violate First Amendment rights.” Under the law, the state cannot provide tuition grants to young monks joining the Belmont Abbey, but can provide them to their peers, whether Catholic or otherwise, attending Belmont Abbey College. That hardly means the college isn’t “religious.”

Even the claim that “the majority of the faculty and students are not Catholic” is problematic at best. According to the Office of the President at BAC, the majority of the Administration, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the resident students are all understood to be Catholic (the college does not formally survey faculty). In the same legal decision mentioned above, the Court states that “Catholics predominate on the Board of Trustees, the offices of administration, faculty and staff of the college,” and comprise roughly 70% of the students. While I hesitate to take an anonymous comment on a blog as having any credibility, someone claiming to be a junior at the college writes on catholic.org that “the student body overwhelmingly supports Dr. Thierfelder and the Abbot in this decision.” So I would say the jury is still out on that claim.

Sadly, the fact that this coverage sat on the books for 26 years, if true, is no proof that it was there intentionally. It is clear that neither the President nor the Abbot knew that their insurance coverage provided for services that violated Catholic teachings. They took action not to discriminate against any party, but to remove the college from paying for activities which violate their religion, and did so as soon as they became aware of the issue. They didn’t discuss, negotiate, or delay, because following the tenets of the Catholic church is part of the charter of the school, and not something that can be discussed, negotiated, or delayed.

Prof. Neipert is unable to understand why the Monks of Belmont Abbey might go so far as to close the College rather than pay for the violation of their religious beliefs. This is because he is only considering the importance of earthly things such as degrees, donors and college credits. While he claims to be fighting for religious principle, he fails to demonstrate an understanding of the overriding importance of religious law to those truly sincere in their faith.

Which brings us to the final, and surely the most crucial point of Professor Neipert’s rebuttal of my earlier post: his claim that it is he and the other seven faculty members that are fighting for religious freedom, rather than Belmont Abbey College. While he attempts to draw a parallel to “prohibiting a Catholic plumber from eating a Pork sandwich for lunch if he works at a Jewish hospital,” a more accurate analogy would be if the plumber were to demand use of the hospital microwave to heat his sandwich, rendering that microwave unusable for the preparation of Kosher food afterward. The college is not prohibiting an employee from undergoing voluntary sterilization or taking prescription contraceptives; it is only excluding itself from assisting financially in that effort.

There can be no confusion on this point. The college, by not paying for something which violates Catholic religious tenets, is not imposing its faith upon Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Atheist faculty or staff. It is merely observing its own faith.

While Prof. Neipert and his seven colleagues may be confused about this, the EEOC is not. The EEOC already dealt with the claim of religious discrimination, and rejected it because “benefits were not changed based on each individual employee’s religious beliefs; contraception benefits were removed from the health plan for all employees, regardless of their religion.”

So Prof. Neipert’s response is enlightening but also perplexing. He tells us that their cause is one of noble principle, that they went to court “to protect our religious freedom not to have religious practices imposed upon us by our employer.” If that is true, one wonders why they continue to pursue a case that they have already lost.

In his essay of over 1200 words, Prof. Neipert does not so much as mention the word “gender” — the sole basis upon which the EEOC rests its case. Perhaps he recognizes that the charge of gender discrimination is logically vacuous, considering that Catholic teachings are equally relevant to any form of interference with reproduction, whether by man or woman. Perhaps he understands how incomprehensible it is for six men to continue to claim personal standing under Title VII, when all that remains is a charge of discrimination against women. Perhaps he also recognizes that if the EEOC position were to be sustained, the same tenuous logic (“Respondent is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral contraceptives”) would immediately require employers to pay for abortion on demand as well. Instead, he attempts to wave a banner that the EEOC has already discarded.

Regardless of the outcome in this particular case, the “freedom” to compel your employer to help you violate his or her own religious tenets will not be granted. As long as a condition is imposed upon all employees and does not require a religious observance, the EEOC will not call that “discrimination.” An employer affiliated with the Je-ovah’s witness might not provide for blood transfusions, or health care at all. A Muslim employer can tell you to stand facing Mecca in respect of those praying, he just can’t order you to pray. A Hindu employer, just like a vegetarian employer, can prohibit beef consumption on the premises of his or her business. And, of course, a Jewish hospital can insist that anything placed in the microwave be certified Kosher.

Prof. Neipert claims this is all a matter of principle, the EEOC has discarded that principle, and the case is lumbering forward. Perplexing, indeed.

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5 Responses

  1. Yaakov Menken says:

    VM, the end result of that was to grant the exemption, because the DOI can’t interfere.

    The students, it should be mentioned, are not directly affected and aren’t part of any litmus test for religious exemptions. Nonetheless, the student body has two distinct components — residential, full-time students, and adult commuters. The latter, of course, are much less involved with school life and may take as little as one course per semester, and choose the school simply because it offers a course they want to take. Given that North Carolina isn’t known as a bastion of Catholicism, it is unsurprising that the (vast) majority of those commuter students are not. But the majority of residential students are, and even those who are not are in the main supportive of the school.

  2. valuemonitor says:

    R. Menken: I realize that I can only post once, but I wanted to provide some evidence to support my contentions which you disagreed with above. These articles are from the Gaston Gazette, dated February 19 and February 22, 2008. Note that both quote the spokesperson for the NC DOI as saying that a religious exemption had not been issued. On March 13, 2008, the NC DOI sent a letter which the administration distributed saying that a recent NC Supreme Court decision, Harris v. Matthews (2007), prohibited any state agency from making determinations regarding religious doctrine, so they couldn’t make a determination on the religious exemption.

    http://www.gastongazette.com/news/college-17213-religious-state.html

    http://www.gastongazette.com/news/college-17369-state-students.html

    According to the second article, of 1,270 students in early 2008, 394 self identified as Catholic.

    Thanks for your thoughtful discussion of this topic.

  3. Baruch Pelta says:

    FWIW:
    It seems to me that both Dr. Neipert’s argument and R’ Menken’s argument hinge on what sort of institution Belmont Abbey officially is. R’ Menken and Dr. Neipert disagree on their reading of the decision in the case deciding if they can receive money, a decision I admittedly haven’t looked at.

    I thought that R’ Menken’s original argument (not mentioned here) that this has something to do with the Obama administration was specious. However, I agree with R’ Menken that Dr. Neipert’s argument that this is like a Catholic bringing an unkosher sandwich to the Jewish hospital he works at was not a proper comparison.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    valuemonitor, your facts and numbers are mistaken. The majority have to share the tenets, plural, not the individual question of contraception. The majority, according to other students, certainly agree the college shouldn’t be paying for it. Apparently the State of North Carolina also agrees, because the college did receive a religious exemption under that statute.

    The EEOC also decided in favor of the college when it comes to the religious freedom question. Provision of contraceptive services by a college health plan is a very different question than under what circumstances a hospital will perform an abortion. [Hospitals find innovative ways to get rid of patients they don’t want, so the impact is also very different.]

    The public policy folks don’t have their act together. NC says a religious entity like BAC can exempt itself from providing contraception. Initially, the EEOC in NC agreed. Then the national office got wind of the decision and the EEOC reversed itself. I am glad you find it very clear, but the EEOC itself does not, much less the State of North Carolina.

  5. valuemonitor says:

    I have two points: one, it is very unlikely that a survey of the faculty and students would find that they are predominantly Catholic(particularly if the adult degree program is included). I’ve been waiting for somebody to get down there and count noses ever since this controversy started. So far, the only one to do so is a student, who is it said found that forty percent of faculty and students are Catholic. However, many of those do not share the ‘tenets’ of the administration as regards contraception. A majority of tenet sharing employees is required for a religious exemption under the NC Contraceptive equity statute.

    Two, the US Supreme Court has made its position on conflicts between the First Amendment and public policy very clear. Public policy wins. Read the NY and CA Catholic Charities decisions. These State Supreme Court decisions were 6-0 [one justice didn’t participate] and 6-1 against the Catholic charities. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeals. If the US Supreme Court had thought that these religious liberty arguments that you, the Catholic charities, and others have been making had merit, they would have heard the appeals.