- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 15, 2009

The president of a small Catholic college said Friday he would rather close the school’s doors than violate the church’s teachings on contraception should the college lose the latest battle involving health-insurance laws and religious freedom.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has determined that Belmont Abbey College violated discrimination laws because the school’s employee health insurance plan does not cover contraception, according to a letter the EEOC sent to the school.

“I hope it would never get this far,” college President William K. Thierfelder told The Washington Times, “but if it came down to it we would close the college before we ever provided that.”

The factual conclusion reached by the EEOC could be a precursor to the commission filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against the college.

“By denying prescription contraceptive drugs, [the college] is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives,” the EEOC wrote in a letter to the North Carolina college. “By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women.”

Mr. Thierfelder disputed that conclusion in a letter posted on the college’s Web site: “Belmont Abbey College rejects the notion that by following the moral teachings of the Catholic Church we are discriminating against anyone.

“We are simply and honestly exercising the freedom of religion that is protected by the Constitution,” he wrote.

In the highest profile case involving contraception coverage and Catholic institutions, California forced Catholic Charities to cover contraception as part of its employee health-insurance plan. The California Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that Catholic Charities was not a religious organization under state law, and therefore was required to provide contraception coverage under state law.

The EEOC investigation into Belmont Abbey stems from changes the college made to its employee health-insurance plan nearly two years ago. The changes came after the school discovered its plan had inadvertently been covering abortions, prescription contraception and elective sterilization procedures.

Mr. Thierfelder wrote at the time that “it is the clear, consistent, incontrovertible, public, official and authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that abortion, contraception and voluntary sterilization are actions which are intrinsically wrong and should not be undertaken because of their very nature.”

The college, which has about 1,500 students, no longer covers contraceptive services as part of its employee health coverage.

“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,” Mr. Thierfelder wrote in a letter explaining the changes.

In response, eight current and former faculty members - six men and two women, according to Mr. Thierfelder - filed a complaint with the EEOC charging that the changes to the insurance benefits violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against them based on religion or sex.

The letter the EEOC sent to the school said the plan change resulted in discrimination based on sex, but found no discrimination based on religion. The letter called only the contraception change discriminatory; it did not mention the change in coverage for abortion or elective sterilization.

A spokesman at the EEOC in Washington declined to comment Friday, saying that confidentiality laws prevent the agency even from confirming that a complaint has been received or an investigation was undertaken.

The letter said the next step is for the college and those who filed the complaint to try to reach an agreement to settle their differences. That seems unlikely, given Mr. Thierfelder’s language.

If no agreement is reached, the EEOC could then file a federal lawsuit against the college.

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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