November 23, 2009

November 23, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care Reform

Government Health Care Threatens the Right of Conscience

When President Obama addressed Congress about health care reform, he promised that legislation would guarantee the rights of conscience in health care. He ought to communicate that message to his own administration.

Consider what happened to Belmont Abbey, a respected private Catholic college located in a North Carolina town of fewer than 10,000 people. Heralded as one of the nation's best liberal arts universities, it seems an unlikely locale for a defining battle over national health care reform.

Founded more than a century ago, Belmont Abbey associates with the Benedictine Order, itself more than 1,500 years old. The college has proclaimed its determination to provide students with a robust and fully accredited education anchored in Catholic teaching.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has different ideas. Charged with handling complaints under federal labor law, the EEOC issued a ruling this past August charging Belmont Abbey with violating federal law over its decision not to provide health insurance coverage of contraception for university employees.

Because of the maddening lack of transparency endemic in so much health care financing, the coverage of contraceptives, as well as of abortion and sterilization, had been included in the university plan, but Belmont Abbey administrators didn't know it. Once discovered, it was corrected in late 2007 and employees were notified of the policy change. Eight of them filed complaints with the relevant state and federal commissions.

At first, administrative agencies at both levels agreed with Belmont Abbey's right to keep its insurance plan in harmony with its status as a Catholic institution. North Carolina employment law contains an exemption for religious employers, and the state insurance agency ruled in its favor. So did the EEOC -- at first.

Official Washington overruled the North Carolina office of the EEOC. The federal EEOC informed Belmont Abbey on July 30 that denying coverage for contraception violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- that, as the EEOC wrote, Belmont Abbey was "discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives."

The university swiftly replied that its refusal to insure contraceptives had nothing to do with the sex of the employee covered or complaining. It merely reflected the university's exercise of its religious freedom under the Constitution.

Indeed, Belmont Abbey President William Thierfelder informed the EEOC that he would close down the university before complying with an order that would require it to violate its clear and consistent moral teaching.

The implications of Belmont Abbey's struggles with the Obama administration's EEOC are enormous. If the federal government succeeds in trampling on the conscience rights of a private university organized under a religious charter, the principle could go well beyond contraception to include sterilization, abortion and other practices as well.

In fact, though the EEOC focused on contraception, the insurance practices that Belmont Abbey suspended included both abortion and sterilization. The former is certainly practiced on women only, so presumably it is susceptible to the same analysis.

The story of Belmont Abbey and the EEOC shows how high the stakes are. This tense drama could be played out in hundreds of private institutions nationwide.

The collision between the sacred rights of conscience and raw government power law isn't the rumbling of some distant thunder. Lightning is already striking.

Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. Robert E. Moffit is the director of Heritage's Center for Health Policy Studies.

About the Author

Chuck Donovan Senior Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D. Senior Fellow
Center for Health Policy Studies

Related Issues: Health Care Reform

First Appeared in the Washington Examiner