November 16, 2011 — Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic university in North Carolina, last week sued HHS in federal court over a new rule that will require the school's health insurance plans to cover contraceptive services, the Religion News Service/Washington Post reports. The college alleges that the rule violates its freedoms of religion and speech (Banks, Religion News Service/Washington Post, 11/11).
The new rule is part of a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that will require health plans to cover certain preventive services -- including contraceptive services -- without copayments, coinsurance or deductibles. Several Catholic groups are urging HHS to adopt a broader religious exemption to the rule so that any religiously affiliated organization could decline offering the coverage.
As written, the religious exemption applies to not-for-profit groups that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose, primarily employ individuals who hold certain religious beliefs and primarily serve a population with those religious tenets (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/29).
The college is being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In the suit filed on the college's behalf in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the group argues that the rule does not treat religious groups fairly. The suit states that the requirement "runs roughshod" over the college's beliefs, adding, "Having to pay a fine to the taxing authorities for the privilege of practicing one's religion or controlling one's own speech is un-American, unprecedented and flagrantly unconstitutional" (Religion News Service/Washington Post, 11/11).
Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, said there is no constitutional basis for including any religious exemption in the HHS rule. "I really think the main point is that the leaders of the college can hold whatever religious beliefs they want but they cannot impose them on other people," Waxman said, adding, "The only exception that might be allowed under the Constitution is for the ministry itself." She noted that the college receives federal money and thus must comply with federal rules.
HHS has 21 days from when the suit was filed to respond.
Belmont Abbey College has had ongoing disagreements with the federal government over its resistance to covering birth control in its health plans. In 2007, the college dropped coverage of contraceptive, abortion and sterilization services in its faculty health plan.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2009 determined that the college's decision discriminated against women by denying them health care benefits. EEOC also said the college retaliated against faculty members who filed an employment discrimination complaint by naming them in a letter to employees. The EEOC case has yet to be resolved (Memrick, Gaston Gazette, 11/11).