The Magazine

The Persecution of Belmont Abbey

Obama's EEOC doesn't believe in religious liberty.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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On July 30 of this year, a regional office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notified Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic institution not far from Charlotte, N.C., that its policy of not covering contraception in its employee health insurance plan violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the landmark law forbidding discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, and other characteristics. The letter, sent by the EEOC's district office in Charlotte, informed Belmont Abbey that the EEOC had made a "determination" that by "denying prescription contraceptive drugs," the college was "discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives."

The letter came as a shock to Belmont Abbey, because a little less than five months earlier, on March 12, that very same EEOC district office had issued a completely different determination: telling the college that its investigation had left it unable to conclude that there were any "violations of the statutes." The commission dismissed the complaint brought by eight members of the Belmont Abbey faculty challenging the legality of Belmont Abbey's anti-contraceptives policy.

To Belmont Abbey's administration, the March ruling had made sense. The Catholic Church deems the use of artificial contraception by members of either sex to be immoral. Although North Carolina, along with at least 24 other states, requires employers to include contraceptive coverage in health plans that cover other prescription drugs, North Carolina also, along with about 20 other states, grants an exemption to any tax-exempt "religious employer" that has the "inculcation of religious values" as one of its primary purposes and "employs primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity." Belmont Abbey, a 1,300-student institution that has received citations for excellence from U.S. News and the Princeton Review, was founded by Benedictine monks in 1876 and houses a Benedictine monastery on its premises. Its president, William Thier-felder, had discovered in 2007 that its employee health plan covered not only contraception but abortion and sterilization, also forbidden by Catholic teaching, and he moved quickly to have the terms of coverage changed. The college was certain that it fell well within the North Carolina religious exemption.

The implications for religious liberty in the EEOC's newly-arrived-at decision to ignore the good-faith beliefs of a religious institution closely affiliated with a religious order (Benedictines still do much of the teaching at Belmont Abbey) are obvious. "This is the first time that an unelected bureaucrat has expounded a novel -theory of law in this fashion and applied it to a 150-year-old small religious college in North Carolina," Eric Kniffin, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has taken on Belmont Abbey's case, told me in a telephone interview. Right now the college has the option of trying to arrive at a mutually satisfactory "conciliation" with the EEOC and, if those efforts fail, bringing a lawsuit against the commission. Neither Belmont Abbey nor the EEOC will discuss the current status of, or provide further details about, what sort of negotiations might be taking place.

But there are further implications. In taking its current stance, the EEOC is attempting to override not just the conscience-clause laws of nearly half the states but also federal court precedents. Even if a religious institution isn't involved, it's still an open question as far as the federal courts are concerned whether an employer's refusal to pay for contraceptives for its employees--which, in the case of birth-control pills, can add an extra $350 or so per year to the cost of hiring every female employee of reproductive age who is on the pill--really constitutes employment discrimination, either under the original 1964 act or under its 1978 amendment, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The latter bars discrimination "on the basis of sex" because of "pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." Contraception, of course, isn't pregnancy but a means of securing its opposite. And while birth control pills can confer health benefits, such as regulating menstruation or treating hormonal skin conditions, the reasons most women take them have more to do with lifestyle than health.