Belmont Abbey College sues government over contraception mandate
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Belmont Abbey College is suing the federal government over a new regulation that requires employers' health insurance plans to provide free contraception and sterilization, even if it may be contrary to their religious beliefs.
The civil lawsuit was filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that is representing the Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont. College leaders addressed reporters and answered questions during a press conference Nov. 18 held in front of the century-old abbey church, the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians.
In its lawsuit, Belmont Abbey College argues that the contraception regulation forces it to violate its religious beliefs or pay a severe fine. Named in the lawsuit are the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Treasury Department and their respective agency heads.
Pictured above: Abbot Placid Solari, chancellor of Belmont Abbey College, and Dr. William Thierfelder, president, talk to reporters and students during a press conference Nov. 18 announcing their lawsuit against the U.S. government over the new health reform law's requirement that all employers provide contraception and sterilization services. The Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont is arguing that the contraception mandate, which runs contrary to Catholic teaching, is a violation of religious liberty and conscience rights. (Patricia L. Guilfoyle, Catholic News Herald)
During the press conference, Belmont Abbey College’s president, Dr. William Thierfelder, and chancellor, Abbot Placid Solari, criticized the federal mandate as a violation of religious liberty.
"This is not just a Catholic issue," Thierfelder said. "If the government can do this, what can't the government do?"
The new contraception regulation is part of implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which sets up new preventative health care coverage specifically for women at no cost. That coverage includes services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings, but it also mandates free contraception, sterilizations and drugs (such as ella and "Plan B") considered by the Church to be abortifacients – all of which are contrary to Catholic teaching. (See the full description of women's "preventative" care being covered, and learn more about the women's guidelines in general.)
For a religious employer that does not want to offer such services, the regulation written by the federal Department of Health and Human Services sets out a detailed exemption: An exempt religious employer is one that "(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization" under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Catholic leaders across the country have decried this exemption as too narrowly written – particularly parts 2 and 3 – and violates the Church's religious liberty.
During a 60-day comment period that followed the regulation's announcement on Aug. 1, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholic universities and schools, hospitals and charitable organizations all voiced loud objections to the mandate, which is expected to go into effect in August of 2012.
The Church's ministries do and should go beyond serving and employing Catholics, they say.
From food pantries to adoption services, refugee resettlement and more, the Charlotte diocese does not scrutinize clients' religious tenets before they help them. The diocese also hires people of all religious faiths, and diocesan schools enroll non-Catholic students.
Likewise, Belmont Abbey College has 1,700 students and more than 200 full-time employees, not all of whom are Catholic. Therefore, unless the college restricts its enrollment and hiring exclusively to Catholics, it would not be able to qualify for the religious exemption on the health services and health insurance it offers to those students and employees when it renews its health insurance policy in January of 2013.
Not even Jesus' own ministry would qualify under the religious exemption as written by HHS, Belmont Abbey's leaders said.
Abbot Placid said in a written statement Nov. 11 that the college's board of trustees "voted without dissent" to sue the federal government because the contraception regulation "is in direct opposition to the public and authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church. We therefore believe this is an egregious infringement on the part of the federal government of the right of free exercise of religion guaranteed to all American citizens by the Bill of Rights."
Added the Becket Fund in its statement, "Belmont Abbey, as a small Catholic liberal arts college, teaches that contraception, sterilization and abortion are all against God's law. The government mandate forces Belmont Abbey and others to make the Hobson's choice of either violating their deeply-held religious beliefs or paying a heavy fine and terminating their health insurance plans for employees and students."
In its lawsuit, the college states, "The government's Mandate unconstitutionally coerces Belmont Abbey College to violate its deeply-held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties. The Mandate also forces Belmont Abbey College to fund government-dictated speech that is directly at odds with its own speech and religious teachings. Having to pay a fine to the taxing authorities for the privilege of practicing one's religion or controlling one's own speech is un-American, unprecedented, and flagrantly unconstitutional."
Many other Catholic organizations have voiced similar concerns, saying that unless the HHS regulation is changed or dropped, they would not betray Church teaching, and instead they would be forced to drop their health insurance policies altogether.
North Carolina and 27 other states have some kind of mandated coverage for contraceptives, but none is as sweeping as the HHS regulation, said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. Nineteen of those states – including North Carolina – have some kind of religious exemption, most of which simply state an employer may be exempt "for religious reasons."
Theirfelder and Abbot Placid noted to reporters Nov. 18 that in its lawsuit the college is not trying to force Catholic teaching on others; rather, the college is seeking the same right of conscience for everyone that is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. People should be free to make their own choices regarding contraception and sterilization services in their health care, they said, they just don't want the Catholic college to be forced to pay for such services in violation of Church teaching.
When a reporter asked them how far they would be willing to go in this federal lawsuit and how important the issue is to the college, Abbot Placid retorted, "How important is the Bill of Rights?"
This legal battle over health insurance coverage and religious liberty is not new to Belmont Abbey College.
The Becket Fund also represented the college in a 2009 dispute with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over whether denying to pay for birth control in its employee health plan constituted gender discrimination. The EEOC initially ruled in March 2009 that the complaint by eight faculty members over the health insurance policy was baseless. In July 2009 the EEOC reopened the complaint, prompting college president Dr. William Thierfelder to vow he would close the college rather than be forced to offer or subsidize health services that contradict Catholic teaching. The case remains unresolved.
Read the lawsuit
Read the full text of Belmont Abbey College's complaint online.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor