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August 25, 2009

A Disturbing Trend for Religious Freedom: It's Not Just Belmont Abbey College

Earlier this month, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the small Belmont Abbey College, tucked away in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, is discriminating against its female employees.

How so? The Catholic institution – founded by Benedictine monks, who still serve the school from their abbey – does not offer coverage for prescription contraceptives in its employee health insurance plan, citing religious exemption due to Catholic Church teachings.

The story was picked up here and there, mostly in Catholic sources but also getting press in the Washington Times, which quoted college president William Thierfelder saying “if it came down to it, we would close the college before we ever provided (contraceptives).”

Many people have recognized the Belmont controversy for what it really is – a battle over religious liberties. But lest you think of it as one, isolated incident, take note of this CNA story from Wisconsin – where a provision in the new state budget mandates that providers of health insurance include contraceptive services in their plans.

That mandate would include the state’s dioceses, parishes and other Catholic agencies, and it lacks a religious exemption – an action that Wisconsin’s bishops rejected as “blatant insensitivity to our moral values and legal rights.”

“Nowhere does the Constitution say that the right of conscience is protected except in matters related to human reproduction,” the bishops wrote in a joint letter to their dioceses. “Nor does it limit the scope of religious freedom to tenets that conform to a party platform or to the agenda of powerful interest groups.”

Two related events, both involving coverage for contraceptives, both putting Catholic institutions on the defense and both occurring in the weeks before Congress returns to battle out legislation for national health care reform.

It’s clear that this is an issue of religious liberty. The State of North Carolina has recognized Belmont Abbey College as a religious employer, thus granting it an exemption from a requirement to provide contraceptives coverage – a fact that the EEOC seems to be ignoring. The Wisconsin case is equally, if not more disturbing, in that no exceptions were made in the budget mandate for religious institutions that could not comply.

To that end, the Wisconsin bishops conference is arguing that the mandate violates the state constitution, which articulates a right of conscience.

Indeed, both incidents raise the issue of conscience laws. As we question whether President Obama’s push for health care reform will survive the next congressional term, it’s absolutely necessary to ask where and how conscience protection will fit in the plan. The president himself promised a “robust conscience clause” when meeting with Catholic journalists this summer; while we tend to connect the phrase with doctors who refuse to perform abortions, August is reminding us that the breadth of such a clause has to be large indeed.

If abortion is not explicitly excluded in the final health care legislation, the dilemmas faced by Wisconsin Catholics and Belmont Abbey College could very well be a prelude to what a federal mandate for abortion coverage would mean for religious institutions across the country – Catholic and non-Catholic.

[Help Belmont Abbey College protect their Catholic identity! Make a secure online donation here: http://alumni.belmontabbeycollege.edu/ChancellorFund]

-- Elizabeth Hansen, Headline Bistro editor

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