Belmont Abbey’s Health-Plan Battle

Belmont Abbey College continues to battle a federal ruling that its insurance benefits for employees must cover contraception.

Once again, the president of a Catholic college in North Carolina is declaring that he would sooner close the institution than violate the teachings of the Church.

The first time William Thierfelder made that remark was last year, when Belmont Abbey College was confronted with a discrimination charge from employees over the exclusion of contraception from the health-care policy.

Thierfelder acted swiftly to remove coverage for abortion, contraception and sterilization when it was discovered that the three were mistakenly added to the school’s faculty health-care policy in late 2007. Eight faculty members — two women and six men — complained to the North Carolina Department of Insurance that the school did not qualify as a religious employer and was therefore mandated under state law to provide the coverage. The insurance department disagreed.

The eight, joining forces with the National Women’s Law Center, then filed a gender discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

At the time, Thierfelder said about providing the demanded coverage, “We would close the school before it came to that. That’s not idle talk. That’s fact.”

The EEOC found in favor of Belmont Abbey and closed the case in March.

Now, Thierfelder is maintaining his stance as the EEOC, in what some are calling a highly unusual move, has reopened the case and ruled that Belmont Abbey’s refusal to offer prescription oral contraceptive coverage discriminates against women. The EEOC also charged that the school retaliated against the eight faculty members by naming them in a letter to faculty and thus creating a “chilling climate” on campus, according to the Aug. 5 determination holding.

Citing confidentiality provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC refused to comment. President Obama has called for openness and transparency in government.

College officials have been ordered to meet with the complainants, six of whom remain employed at Belmont Abbey.

But that won’t happen, said Thierfelder. “There is no possibility for compromise. There’s nothing to discuss. There is no possible way to offer those services and not be in direct violation of the teachings of the Catholic Church. If it came to that, we would close the school before we would offer those services.”

Church and State

If no resolution is arrived at, the EEOC will determine the court-enforcement alternatives, including litigation against the school.

Of the retaliation charge, Thierfelder said that he did name the eight, but that they had never made any attempt to keep their identities secret.

At issue is not whether Belmont Abbey is a religious employer; the state has already determined that it is. The 134-year-old college has a deep history of Catholicism, having opened its doors at a time when North Carolina Catholics were a tiny minority. Benedictine monks live and serve on campus, and the school is included in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College for its fidelity to Catholic identity and mission. As the school’s president, Thierfelder takes an oath of fidelity each spring.

What is at issue is a ruling that could have consequences that reach far beyond the small college nestled in the North Carolina hills. Catholic institutions have been challenged before on this issue — most notably Catholic Charities in California — but only on a statewide level. Never before has federal law been used to usurp the First Amendment right of religious employers to opt out of mandated contraceptive coverage. If Belmont Abbey is ordered to provide such coverage for its employees, the same could happen to every Catholic institution in the country.

“What’s at stake here is the whole barrier between church and state,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who has sent a letter to the director of the EEOC district office in Charlotte demanding all documentation pertaining to the decision reversal. “If there’s politics involved, we need to get it resolved very quickly.”

He said this is just another example of the current administration’s hostility to Catholics. Like the Freedom of Choice Act and the health-care bill under debate, he said that the case against Belmont Abbey is a move toward requiring universal abortion on demand.

Although the original complaint focused on abortion, contraception and sterilization, only oral prescription contraceptive coverage is now at issue. However, Thierfelder pointed out the slippery slope to abortion: “If you can claim that only women use prescription contraceptive coverage, can’t you claim that about abortion? This is trying to push the agenda of no conscience clauses, no religious freedom, and I’d like to put out a clarion call to every faith to join us and say, ‘This can’t happen.’”

Some are already rallying Catholics. In addition to Donohue’s e-mail blast to members, the Cardinal Newman Society’s president, Patrick Reilly, sent a letter to every U.S. bishop highlighting the dangerous precedent of forcing Catholic employers to include contraceptive coverage in employee health plans.

Reilly said that Catholic schools should rightly be very concerned — but so should everyone who values religious freedom. “It’s an extremely serious issue. It’s not just a small case with one Catholic college, but a case that could decide the fate of any Catholic institution across the country that’s not directly owned by the Catholic Church,” he said. “It’s a real test for Catholic identity. Not only is it a test case based on the law, but on top of that, it’s a test case for the institutions themselves — will they fight this?”

Dana Lorelle writes from

Cary, North Carolina.