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October 15, 2009

Guest post: Watch this case

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis, a Jewish cyber-outreach organization based in Baltimore.

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, former Sen. 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.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 5:00 AM | | Comments (13)


Who has the pin and tiny paintbrush concession for this circus?

I think you are quite mistaken in equating contraception and abortion, and in supposing that the ultimate goal of those who favor contraceptive equity is to provide federal funding for abortion. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has a long history, as does the EEOC's pursuit of sex discrimination in its application. Ultimately, this is about making women healthier and the workplace a more equitable place for them.

One thing that I can't help wondering is: what about when a woman takes oral contraception for non contraceptive purposes? Many, many women take the Pill to help with acne and with menstrual issues. They might not even be sexually active. Is this not perfectly consistent with Catholic teachings? Should such women lose out solely because their medication CAN also be used for a disapproved purpose, even though it's NOT being so used?

But further....

Are all the employees Catholic? If so, they should have no problem with the new system. If no, then isn't this religious discrimination against them: trying to manipulate their health care decisions?

(I will freely admit that I am not clear on how employer-subsidized health plans work. Does the college actually financially contribute to specific uses of the health plan? Is it cheaper to get insurance that doesn't cover certain things?)

You can understand this better if you stop focusing on the contraception issue and look at the bigger picture. The law treats a Catholic college like any other employer. The issue in controversy is whether or not an employer can impose religious practices on employees resulting in discrimination. Religious beliefs are absolutely protected by the constitution. You can believe anything you want. Religious practices can and sometimes must be regulated because they affect the rights of others. So it is perfectly legal to believe that a man should have 3 wives, but he will be arrested if he puts that belief into practice and actually marries three women. In this case the last thing that you, as a Rabbi, want is for Belmont Abbey to win the case because that would mean that the courts have decided that employers can dictate religious practices to employees. The result would be that millions of Jewish employees could be required to follow practices of their non-Jewish employers. So a business owned by a Jehovah's witness might not allow blood transfusions in the health plan. A business owned by a Muslim might require the employees to face Mecca at prayer time. A business owned by a Hindu might fire an employee seen eating beef on company premises. I could go on and on but you can see that it is best to let each employee decide for him or herself, freely without coercion, how to practice religion. The college sees contraception as an evil but many others see things that you do on a daily basis as equally evil and you don't want your employer interfering with your life in this way as I don't. As "they" say, be careful what you wish for.

To answer ex-Marylander: the majority of students, faculty, staff, and alumni at Belmont Abbey College are not Catholic and of those who are Catholic most have no problem with contraceptives. This policy was imposed on the unwilling by a very small group of administrators.

If abortion was illegal like it should be, then we wouldnt have a problem with disagreements on having it covered by health care plans. As far as birth control goes, I see nothing wrong with it. I dont see why the Catholic church allows you to refrain from having sex to control how many kids you have but it doesnt allow you to use artificial methods. Why allow someone to use most prescription drugs? Many of them are harmful to our bodies. Maybe the church can encourage people to go to the health food store. My point is that the bible doesnt talk about not using or using birth control pills. It does tell us to be fruitful and multiply. So what does the church use for justification of it's no artificial birth control policies? When you have Catholic families in Central and South America having 6 kids on less than 100 dollars a month, it makes you wonder why birth control isnt encouraged, let alone allowed. Of course not all of these families can afford the pills to begin with. Like I said, I am totally against abortion. However, overpopulation causes problems for all of us, including the Catholic church. If someone is not created to begin with, there is no sin that has been committed in attempting to end that life.

Clay – There is no way the bible could talk about birth control pills since they didn’t exist at the time the various books were written. The closest the bible comes to discussing the whole topic of birth control is Gen. 38:8–10. I still struggle myself with the Church’s position on the subject of birth control, however I suggest before you comment on things you don’t understand you research them first. I don’t believe the term abortion is in the Bible either but is inferred. Did you also realize that until around the 1930’s all Protestant denominations shared the same position on the subject? Regardless what your belief is you really ought to try actually researching other denominations or faiths teachings before you make simplistic commentary. Better yet follow the teaching of Christ and worry about the log in your own eye.

Hi Anon. So what justification does the church use for its no artificial birth control policies? Also what did I say above that needed further research first? Thanks.

If you don't know the Church's basis for it's position why are you criticizing it? Since you asked however start here.

The point you missed is not criticizing things you don't understand.

I disagree. I think that the policy is obviously questionable no matter what the reason is. One of the problems with the Catholic church is that it uses questionable interpretations of scripture to justify what it wants to do. Someone said here that the book of Revelations mentions prayer being offered up for the saints so that was their reason for praying to Peter and Paul, etc. Fact is, both Peter and Paul mention in the bible about not wanting someone to fall before them, etc. Thanks.

How can anyone go to work for a religious organization and not expect to have the religious organization's rules inforced. Every church has doctrine. If you were working for an Islamic college you would be fired (or worse) in a heartbeat for eating pork or drinking alcohol. Get real. The Catholic Church has been openly opposed to abortion and contraception for centuries.

Like I said, nothing wrong with the college not paying for abortions. And of course we can expect them to not pay for contraception. I am just asking if it definitely goes against biblical teaching to have sex without attempting to have children. Thanks.

Clay - I think the issue is open to intrpretation as the Bible doesn't really explicitly approve or disapprove of contraception.

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.

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