The Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued a ruling that threatens to undermine the First Amendment rights of religious employers and protections afforded the conscience rights of all citizens across America.
I admit, I am no expert on the health care debate, others at the national level, and here in Delaware, have done a far better job pointing out the flaws in the plans afoot in Congress then I could ever do. Still, the following article really hit home with me, as I see religious liberty as perhaps the “first right,” the one that underpins all the others.
As explained by Patrick Reilly, the President of the Cardinal Newman Society, in the Wall Street Journal:
Last week, thanks to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal government took a giant leap toward encroaching on the religious liberty of Catholics. Reuben Daniels Jr., director of the EEOC District Office in Charlotte, N.C, ruled that a small Catholic college discriminated against female employees by refusing to cover prescription contraceptives in its health insurance plan. With health-care reform looming before the country, this ruling is a bad omen for people of faith.
In 2007, eight faculty members filed a complaint against Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., claiming that the school’s decision to exclude prescription contraceptives from its health-care plan was discriminatory against women. “As a Roman Catholic institution, Belmont Abbey College is not able to and will not offer nor subsidize medical services that contradict the clear teaching of the Catholic Church,” said the college’s president, William Thierfelder, at the time.
In March the commission informed the college that the investigation of its employee health insurance plan had been closed with no finding of wrongdoing. Inexplicably, the case was reopened, and now the college is charged with violating federal law. If Belmont Abbey doesn’t back down, the EEOC will recommend court remedies.
The ruling against the college is certainly consistent with the commission’s published guidance on “pregnancy discrimination.” The EEOC has found that contraceptive coverage is mandated by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (even though the law concerns pregnant women and does not, by strict interpretation, consider discrimination against all women of childbearing potential). North Carolina also has made its position clear with a law requiring employers to cover employees’ contraceptive expenses if other prescription drugs are insured.
The difference, however, between the EEOC’s guidance and the North Carolina law is that the latter exempts religious employers such as a Catholic college, whereas the commission fails to consider that the tenets of a faith may preclude an institution from offering such benefits.
And that’s the rub: Increasingly it is clear to Catholics and other religious groups that without very clear exemptions for religious employers—and conscience protections for individual doctors, nurses, pharmacists—federal health-care laws and guidelines could severely restrict religious freedom in the U.S.
Even the existing exemptions are often narrowly defined. The North Carolina statute, for instance, mandates that an institution may be free from the state’s nondiscrimination rules only if “the inculcation of religious values is one of the primary purposes of the entity” and “the entity employs primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity.” By this standard, of course, no Catholic hospital in the country would qualify. And the faculty members who complained about the contraceptive policy at Belmont Abbey told the Web site InsideHigherEd that they don’t think the school qualifies, since most of its employees are not Catholic and, according to the complainants, the inculcation of religious values is not the college’s primary mission.
This is an incredible claim. Belmont Abbey is featured in “The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College,” to be released in September, for the school’s fidelity to Catholic identity and mission. And in January 2008, the North Carolina Department of Insurance ruled that the college is a religious employer under state law, dismissing a faculty member’s petition to the agency. But regardless, do we even really want the government (at any level) in the position of determining which entities are religious enough and which ones are not?
Perhaps there are those who would say that this is an issue for only a minority of religious people. Catholics are nearly alone in their objection to contraceptives—and many Catholics regularly violate the church’s teaching on the issue. But consider abortion. The EEOC says that pregnancy discrimination does not apply to an employer’s refusal to cover abortion expenses, “except where the life of the mother is endangered.” When will a federal court argue that if insurance coverage to prevent pregnancy is, by inference, mandated by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, then why not abortion to end a pregnancy?
We can add the threat to religious liberty to the dangers already presented by government-run health care.
Several months ago, Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, spoke here in Delaware at the annual St. Thomas More Society Dinner. In his remarks, he urgently warned against an assault on religious liberty and conscience protections that he saw in several proposals advanced by the Obama administration. He also reminded the audience that America has a long, distinguished, tradition of recognizing and protecting freedom of conscience, such as, for example, in recognizing conscientious objector status in time of war.
And what is the conscience? Why is freedom of conscience something worthy of special recognition and protection? Here is one definition: “conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
A person’s conscience is that part of a the soul where the State has no writ to tread. We have a long tradition of recognizing this in America, going back to the Quakers and the Revolutionary War. Would that we kept faith with that noble tradition.