BELMONT, N.C. — Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, charging that its new rule mandating the inclusion of contraceptive services in employee health insurance violates the school’s religious freedom.
The interim federal rule, which requires private employer-provided health benefits to include the full range of “preventive services” for women, is part of the new health bill.
“We believe it will be a test case. This is the first lawsuit to challenge the HHS rule mandating contraception, sterilization and other ‘preventive services,’” said Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public-interest law firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the college.
The filing asks for a court order to free the college from the federal mandate. The government is required to respond to the complaint within 60 days. Windham said she could not comment on whether other Catholic institutions or dioceses had contacted the Becket Fund to explore legal challenges to the federal rule.
At present, the controversial federal regulation, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides a narrow exemption for religious institutions engaged in work with others of the same faith. Those that serve people of other faiths or no faith will likely not be allowed to opt out of the mandate, which requires the provision of sterilization and abortifacients — such as Plan B and Ella.
“The issue is the right of Belmont Abbey College, which has always publicly identified itself and functioned as a Catholic college, to freely exercise the constitutional right to operate in accord with the public and authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church,” said Benectine Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey and the ex officio chancellor of the college.
“It is a matter of the fundamental rights guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution, and it is time that someone stood up for these fundamental rights.”
“No employee or student of Belmont Abbey College is being coerced into accepting the faith or moral beliefs of the Catholic Church. The college, however, will be required by the federal government to act contrary to its own faith convictions,” said the abbot.
Belmont Abbey College is no stranger to such disputes. It has already been under investigation by the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) for refusing to cover contraception in its employee health plan. The EEOC continues to investigate this dispute.
In a statement issued Nov. 10, the Becket Fund noted that while “the government has already provided thousands of waivers for a variety of special-interest groups, including McDonald’s and teachers’ unions, often for reasons of commercial convenience, it refused to accommodate religious organizations.
“Instead, the government permitted a religious exemption so narrowly defined that it prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to note that even Jesus’ ministry would not qualify.”
Windham contends that the new regulation “is riddled with exceptions. It’s a violation of the Constitution when you make exceptions for secular purposes, but not for religious conscience.”
She notes that the controversial rule not only requires the provision of services that violate Catholic moral teaching, it also mandates “counseling” for these services. “Catholic institutions are being asked to fund speech that is contrary to their beliefs,” she charged.
Windham reports that more than 100,000 respondents signaled their opposition to the HHS rule, after being invited to do so by the government. Sept. 30 was the last date for providing comment, and HHS has not confirmed when it will issue a final ruling that might result in a broadened religious exemption.
Richard Doerflinger, the chief lobbyist on life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirmed in a previous interview that HHS has signaled it will probably broaden the exemption, but not to the satisfaction of the conference.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said the conference is “waiting to see if and when the exemption is changed before we take any steps.”
HHS has established August 2012 as the formal deadline for providing services mandated by the new health bill.
Asked how much lead time Catholics institutions would need to respond to an unacceptable final rule, Sister Mary Ann said she did not know, but it appeared that the bishops were at least not publicly discussing back-up plans “when the rules might change.”
But if the U.S. bishops’ conference has yet to issue a formal legal challenge to the HHS regulation, the bishops have been marshaling their forces to oppose what they perceive as an increasingly aggressive federal effort to impinge on the First Amendment rights of Catholic institutions.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, has already moved to establish a new ad hoc committee on religious liberty, appointing Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., to head that initiative.
Yesterday, Bishop Lori announced that a number of high-profile Church leaders would join the committee, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.
The committee’s brain trust includes Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; Richard Garnett, associate dean and professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame Law School; John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America; and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.