Early last month, President Obama bragged to a St. Louis crowd about the recent Health and Human Services’ regulations that will require thousands of religious employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and drugs that probably cause abortions. The crowd cheered the president’s contraceptive mandate. He joined their revelry, shouting, “Darn Tootin’!” to the crowd’s delight.
The same week, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed a NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser. She told the raucous crowd that “we are in a war” and boasted of the regulation that forces religious objectors to choose between violating their religion and kicking their employees off of health insurance.
Yesterday, Nov. 9, Secretary Sebelius’ war against religious objectors landed her someplace she and the administration can expect to receive less applause: federal court.
The plaintiff is Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic college in Belmont, N.C. The college was founded in 1876 by a congregation of Benedictine monks, who built the campus with bricks they formed by hand from the red clay of the North Carolina soil. They still sponsor and run the college to this day. True to its Catholic identity, the college does not provide contraceptives, sterilization or abortions for its students or employees.
The federal government was well aware of Belmont Abbey’s religious objections. In fact, President Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been investigating the Catholic college for more than two years for its refusal to pay for contraceptives and abortions. Nor are the monks of Belmont Abbey alone in the fact that their religion forbids them from buying these services. Tens of thousands of other religious individuals and organizations filed written comments with HHS, asking the administration to refrain from forcing them to violate their beliefs.
But Secretary Sebelius is at war. Rather than provide the type of complete and universal protection for religious freedom required by the Constitution and federal law, Secretary Sebelius offered the stingiest religious-exemption clause in federal history.
The clause only protects churches and religious orders, only protects them if their purpose is the inculcation of the faith, and only if they serve and hire people primarily of their own faith. Want to run a school with your church? You lose the exemption. Want to serve soup to Jewish, Muslim or atheist homeless people as well as Christian ones? You lose the exemption. Want to allow a diverse group of students to attend your college? Fine, but you have to pay for drugs that cause abortions now.
Because Belmont Abbey College is not a church, and because it serves and employs people of all faiths, it probably does not qualify to have its religious beliefs protected. The new regulations also force the monks and other religious objectors to pay for speech with which they disagree. These employers and schools now have to pay for their employees and students to receive “counseling and education” about contraceptives and sterilization. So the monks at Belmont Abbey can preach against contraception and sterilization all they like on Sunday morning. But on Monday, Secretary Sebelius will make them pay someone else to send the exact opposite message.
None of this is remotely permissible under the Constitution or federal law. The Founders explicitly protected the free exercise of religion in the First Amendment. That right extends to all of us, and the government has no power to limit it only to those who teach the faith for a living or only to those who limit their charity and employment opportunities to people of the same faith. Federal statutes rightly forbid the government from imposing these kinds of burdens on our free exercise of religion. The First Amendment protects all of us from being forced to speak the government’s message instead of our own.
Secretary Sebelius and the administration left the monks of Belmont Abbey with no choice but to sue — they could either allow the administration to run roughshod over their religious beliefs, kick all of their students and employees off of health insurance in the middle of a terrible economy or bring their claims to federal court. So the small Catholic college from North Carolina just brought its slingshot to Washington, D.C.
Secretary Sebelius wanted a war. Apparently, now she’ll have one in federal court. Darn tootin’.
Mark L. Rienzi is professor of constitutional law at The Catholic University of America and an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Belmont Abbey College.