First the state came for Catholic hospitals. Now it’s coming for Catholic colleges.

In a remarkable act of government overreaching, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina with potential discrimination against women. The reason? The college’s determination, consistent with Catholic teaching, that it could not extend health-insurance coverage to its employees for abortion, prescription contraceptives or sterilization services.

The commission argued that such services would be sought primarily by women. Therefore, according to its logic, the college must be discriminating against them by refusing to pay for coverage.

Evidently the college’s determination — which is based on its freedom under the First Amendment to exercise its faith freely — has little traction with the federal government.

The commission initially, and reasonably, ruled that the college’s decision, made in December 2007, did not run afoul of any law or rule and was therefore not discriminatory. But a few months later, it inexplicably changed course, issuing a letter asserting that the college’s policies were discriminatory. Worse still, it refused to explain its change of mind even when asked.

The commission hopes the parties can reach a compromise, but, unfortunately, the state has pushed its rhetoric so far that the college may have no choice but to close its doors.

If the government does not back off from forcing the school to contravene Church teaching, the result would be a disaster not only for Catholic institutions, but also for the American political system.

This action against Belmont Abbey is of a piece with state laws applying the same kind of logic against Catholic hospitals. These laws, directed in some instances explicitly against the Church, have already been passed in California and New York and have survived judicial challenge. They may be couched in language comfortable to American ears, with words such as “rights” or “equality.” But they are not what they seem, as they in effect force Catholic institutions to either cease their social service mission rooted in the Gospel or to close their doors entirely rather than be forced to violate their beliefs even indirectly.

It is no surprise that Catholic institutions have been the primary targets of such laws. The Church not only runs the most extensive network of institutions in the United States, but is also the most strongly and clearly opposed counterforce to an aggressively secular insistence on equality — an insistence that cuts at the historic liberty to profess one’s faith in words and actions.

The California and New York cases are harbingers of the kind of legal order that is coming. The forced closure of Catholic Charities in Massachusetts for failing to abide by a requirement to place children with same-sex couples is another.

These laws, and the recent action by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, promote a dangerous notion of equality and what that term means in a pluralistic society that supposedly guarantees religious freedom. For secularists who urge government power to be used against people of faith, “equality” becomes what the writer Russell Kirk called a “god term”: It can be used to regulate any beliefs or practices the state does not like. “Discrimination” becomes like the words of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: A word means “just what I choose it to mean.”

Nondiscrimination or equality have become catch-all weapons to be used against political or cultural opponents. For who decides what is discriminatory and what is not? To colleges like Belmont, the commission is discriminating against the practice of their historic faith.

Further, there is no limiting principle to imposing a rule of “equality” on private institutions. Today it is health-care coverage. But there is no reason why the ever-expanding definition of equality could not be applied to employment generally or to the enunciation of religious beliefs. For if the denial of health-care coverage is deemed a violation of equality, is not proclaiming from the pulpit some health-care procedures are immoral advocating for inequality?

Even more ominously, religious institutions could not only be forced to provide coverage for practices they oppose, but may also be required to perform them. Such proposals are already working their way through state legislatures and the courts. The First Amendment, presumably, would similarly apply — but these cases demonstrate that that protection may only go so far.

In the end, the position announced by the Charlotte EEOC, despite its pleasant words and hopes for compromise, is deeply troubling. The commission offers government not by democratic voices in a pluralistic setting, but rather rule by an arbitrary standard that cannot be resisted for fear of being labeled discriminatory and therefore cast out of the public conversation.

Catholic institutions and Catholic bishops need to understand that the secular state that has been emerging since the late 1960s is fundamentally at odds with both Catholic doctrine and the American tradition of ordered liberty.

Some institutions will try to accommodate the state’s demands, hoping that a little surrender will appease agencies like the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They are unlikely to succeed.

Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at

Seton Hall University.