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Abbey's road

The case of a small Benedictine college-and federal attempts to pressure it to pay for employees' contraception-could foretell the loss of religious freedom after Congress overhauls healthcare

Abbey's road

(Sam Cranston/Genesis Photos)

For the 18 Benedictine monks living in a 142-year-old monastery in the tiny town of Belmont, N.C., life is intentionally simple: They rise early for prayer in a Gothic-style Basilica with wooden pews and hand-painted windows; they take care of the two-story monastery built with hand-hewn bricks; and they vow fidelity to Roman Catholic doctrine and teaching.

These days, that simplicity has grown complicated by a thorny combination: healthcare and the federal government.

The trouble stems from a conflict brewing at Belmont Abbey College, the 1,600-student, Catholic college connected to the monastery. Earlier this year, eight Belmont Abbey faculty members filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over a school policy rooted in Catholic doctrine: The college refuses to include birth control in its healthcare coverage for employees, citing Catholic teaching against contraceptives. The school also refuses to cover abortion or sterilization.

The EEOC district office in nearby Charlotte, N.C., initially dismissed the complaint in March but suddenly reversed course: A July 30 letter from District Office Director Reuben Daniels claimed the college is discriminating against women by refusing to pay for birth control, despite the school's religious objection to the practice. The implication was clear: In this case, an accusation of gender discrimination trumps religious freedom.

For Belmont Abbey president William Thierfelder, that's unacceptable: "This is one of those things that as Catholics-as our faith dictates-we cannot do this." To that end, the school has enlisted the Becket Fund, a D.C.-based religious liberty law firm, to handle the case with far-reaching implications for religious freedom. Thierfelder and others wonder: If the federal government requires a religious institution to pay for birth control, why couldn't it also require that organization-or others-to pay for abortion?

Others see another implication for religious institutions like Belmont Abbey in the current healthcare debate: What if the proposed public option that Congress is considering eventually crowds out the private healthcare plans that religious organizations often use? That's a scenario that could leave some religious organizations-and individuals of faith-with few choices for balancing healthcare plans with moral convictions.

Healthcare overhaul is gathering congressional momentum: All five committees with healthcare jurisdiction have passed their versions of reform-something that didn't happen under the last healthcare push under Bill Clinton.

Now with debate moving to the center stages of the House and Senate chambers, lawmakers from both parties are no doubt gearing up for their C-SPAN close-ups. And sure to be at the controversial center of the upcoming debate: the creation of a government-run insurance option. Such a public plan has weathered the storms of the summer's town hall gatherings where citizens protested more governmental control: Four of the five committee-approved bills include some sort of public option. "You'd have to say this process isn't moving to the right," said Greg D'Angelo with the Heritage Foundation.

The public option is far from a slam-dunk: A wing of moderate Democrats in both chambers is withholding support. But, even while the public option is being debated, reform proponents, with little fanfare, have embedded other elements in the bills that could soon replicate for believers nationwide the Gordian Knot now facing Belmont Abbey.

The first ingredient for turning the government into the nation's doctor-in-chief: The bills empower the health and human services secretary, currently pro-abortion advocate Kathleen Sebelius, to set minimum standard requirements for coverage.

"Every plan creates a healthcare dictator, and I use that term because she will get to dictate what is covered and what isn't," argues David Stevens, who heads the Christian Medical Association (CMA).

The second ingredient is the expected inclusion of an individual mandate to buy a government-approved policy or pay a penalty. Twila Brase, president of Citizens' Council on Health Care, fears that Americans will soon be forced to purchase insurance that includes required government-approved procedures that many may find objectionable.

"Never before has the federal government required its citizens to use their money to buy something," says Brase.

Few doubt that if a public plan becomes a reality it will include abortion coverage. Amendments to exclude abortion coverage specifically in the federal mandates or to provide religious exemptions for medical providers failed 17 times in various congressional committees. Instead, House lawmakers adopted an amendment that allows both a public plan and federally subsidized private plans to cover all abortions. Christians may even find reduced choices in the private marketplace as insurance companies stop offering plans that aren't federally approved.

Equally worrisome: how the bills set up penalties and regulations that would not only create a government-run plan but provide financial incentives for employers to send their employees into the federal healthcare system.

The House proposal imposes a fine, totaling 8 percent of average wages per employee, for businesses whose workers go on a federally subsidized plan. One doesn't have to be a Warren Buffet to conclude that the penalty may be cheaper than the cost of insurance.

For example, Stevens says it costs $10,800 for CMA to provide its employees with a basic family plan. For someone making a $25,000 salary it makes more economic sense for the company to pay the 8 percent ($2,000) fine and save $8,000 by sending the employee to the government-run plan. For Stevens, it only becomes more cost-effective to provide insurance for employees making more than $135,000.

The Senate bills offer even weaker penalties to employers-either $400 or $750 per employee-making it cheaper not to provide insurance.

Here is where the vicious cycle kicks in: With fewer customers, private insurers will be forced to raise premiums or go bankrupt. The healthcare overhaul is already expected to cause insurance prices to rise to about $26,000 for a family policy over the next decade as companies pass on to consumers the $6.7 billion a year in new fees imposed in current proposals.

"This is a powerful incentive to dump people into the public plan," predicts Stevens. "It's a backdoor way of creating a national healthcare system where, before long, the government is calling the shots."

In such a Medicare-for-all environment with bureaucrats dictating what should be covered and providing the coverage, odds are high that both organizations and people of faith will soon face tough-if not impossible-choices.

For now, Belmont Abbey's Thierfelder is most concerned with religious liberty, and from a modest classroom on the quiet campus, he seems surprised to be in the middle of a sweeping debate. "It's incredible that it would be tiny, little Belmont Abbey College, but this is clearly a precedent-setting case," he says. "If you want to be able to practice your faith, you're interested in this case."

The case began in December 2007 when a faculty member asked Thierfelder if he realized the school's healthcare plan for employees covered abortion, birth control, and sterilization. He didn't. Thierfelder says he immediately called Placid Solari, abbot of the monastery and chancellor of the college. (The on-site monks maintain a close connection with the college founded by their predecessors, often serving as professors, board members, or mentors for students.)

Thierfelder says he and the abbot were in the school's human resources office within minutes: "We said: 'That's it-absolutely, we cannot provide this.'" The reason was simple: "It's the teaching of the Catholic Church." (Catholic doctrine has long taught against abortion and artificial birth control.)

The human resources department dropped the options from the coverage, and the president thought the matter was settled. But Thierfelder says the North Carolina Department of Insurance informed the school that an employee complained about the change. The president says he explained the school's religious objections to all three services, and the department granted a religious exemption allowed by state law. He says the school's insurance provider-Well Path-also allowed the religious exemption.

But the matter still wasn't settled. Eight faculty members filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging gender and religious discrimination. The EEOC is the government agency that enforces federal discrimination laws. Certain portions of the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act apply to private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions that employ 15 or more people.

The complaint set in motion the EEOC's strange behavior of dismissing the complaint and then reversing the dismissal. The July 30 letter from director Reuben Daniels said the office found that Belmont Abbey "is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives. By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women." Thierfelder notes that six of the eight people who complained are men.

(The letter also stated that Belmont Abbey was not discriminating based on religion because the policy applied to all employees regardless of their religion. The school accepts non-Catholic students and faculty members, while maintaining a Catholic identity.)

It's not clear why the EEOC reversed its original finding. An attorney with the EEOC office in Charlotte didn't respond to a request for comment. Dave Grinberg, spokesman for the EEOC office in Washington, D.C., said federal law doesn't allow the EEOC to comment on whether it's handling a case, and that he couldn't confirm or deny whether the office had received a complaint about Belmont Abbey. Grinberg said he could confirm that the EEOC hasn't filed a lawsuit against the college.

Thierfelder says he's waiting to hear from the district office for the next steps in the case. In the meantime, he's adamant that the school won't provide birth control and has said he'd close the school first. He's also worried about the precedent such a case could set for requiring employers to cover abortion. Becket Fund attorney Eric Kniffin agrees: "The logic of the July 30 letter [from the EEOC] applies equally to abortion as contraception." Since only women obtain abortions, the same logic of gender discrimination could be applied to that practice in the future.

Kniffin also emphasizes that the case isn't an argument over Catholic doctrine or forcing others to abide by it: "This is not about telling the faculty what they can or can't do. This is about whether the school can be compelled to facilitate what it believes to be immoral activity."

Thierfelder agrees: "In this case we're not telling anybody else what they have to do. But it's ironic that people are trying to tell us what to do."

Gary McCaleb of the Alliance Defense Fund-an Arizona-based religious liberty law fund-says the Belmont Abbey case highlights the precarious relationship between religious freedom and perceived discrimination. McCaleb says the notion that religious liberty must yield to secular nondiscrimination interests is "a terrifying thought because religious liberty is the cornerstone of our country."

McCaleb says it's also a frightening thought to consider what certain versions of healthcare reform could mean for religious institutions like Belmont Abbey. If a public option snuffed out private insurers, religious groups could be left with healthcare options that are incompatible with their moral convictions: "If they go with a public option, you will see a continual slide."

Edward Lee Pitts

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the associate dean of World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Lee resides with his family in Iowa.