(VIDEO) Conservative Catholic College Rejects Birth Control

David Neipert

My employer, Belmont Abbey College, removed birth control coverage from our health plan. This is a gender discrimination, not a religious issue. Men's health is covered but not women's.

I am one of the faculty members of
Belmont Abbey College who filed a charge with Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission against my employer for removing coverage of birth control from our employee health care plan. I do not see this as a religious issue but rather one of gender
discrimination. The college prescription plan covers the health problems that
men have, such as prostate trouble and, to be fair, it should also cover those
unique to women, among them birth control pills. That is required by the civil
rights act which requires that we treat all races, genders, religions, etc. in
the same manner. That is what we are trying to promote. We are not in conflict
with the anti-abortion movement: good contraception means fewer abortions.
A small minority of Catholics,
(by all polls less than 10 %), have a problem with contraception.


What happens when your employer tries to impose its religious views on you? When Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina removes birth control from its employee health care plan, eight professors protest and the federal government gets involved.

The
college advertised itself as an equal opportunity employer and freely accepted
funding that was not available to religious institutions. In fact, the college
actually went to the federal court of appeals arguing that it was not religious
in order to obtain state funding. You can read the case yourself in any law
library or lawyer’s office at 429 F. Supp 871. Does a truly religious
institution deny that it is religious to obtain money?

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The
appropriate committees formed ideas regarding how the benefits could be
restored without offending Catholic sensibilities but found that the
administration would not discuss the matter with them. In the exact words of
the college president: "consultation was not an option." The
college’s position was basically that they would not ever change their mind but
you could come at any time so they could tell you why you were wrong.

Nobody
questions the right of the college to promote its religious beliefs, only its
practices which affect others. The law makes a distinction between religious
beliefs which are absolutely protected and religious practices which are often
regulated when they affect others, as the college’s practice does here. The
regulation of practices is necessary: there are people who believe in human
sacrifice or ritual child abuse.

Forcing
us to abide by a Catholic approved health plan makes no more sense than
prohibiting a Catholic plumber from eating a pork sandwich for lunch if he
works at a Jewish hospital. It would be an ugly world if an employer is allowed
to impose religious practices on employees who do not share the employer’s
views. A business owned by a Jehovah’s witness might not allow blood
transfusions in the health plan. A business owned by a Muslim might require the
employees to face Mecca at prayer time. I could go on, but you can see that it
is best to let each employee decide for himself or herself, freely and without
coercion, how to practice religion. If the law requires that an employer offer
contraceptive benefits, that law should apply to all employers. Of course
Orthodox Catholics may decline to use the contraception benefit, but that is
the true application of religious freedom.

The
college’s position would be more credible if it were consistent. I note that
Belmont Abbey has upon its premises, and collects rent from, two pharmacies
which sell contraceptive products including emergency contraception. Why didn’t
they put a clause in the lease that these activities were forbidden? If one
makes money from the event, it’s right, but if one has to help pay for the
event it’s wrong?

If
health issues unique to men were not covered and health issue unique to women
were not covered the college would not be discriminating and I would have no
complaint. The problem is picking and choosing among them.

I
have had bosses who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox Christian,
Protestant, Wankan Tanka, and even some with the strange name
"Presbyterian" in countries ranging from the Baltics, Balkans,
Central Europe, Latin America, and Asia as well as several in the USA. Nobody
ever tried to force me to accept their practices before Belmont Abbey. Not
once. Not in any place. Not any religion. This action is the very face of
intolerance. They are saying: "If you won’t adopt our religious practices you
are not welcome here, period." Being unwelcome I left, the first time in a long
career that I did not leave an employer on cordial terms.

President
Thierfelder believes that the college’s Catholic identity depends on its being
allowed to deny the standard of care to women. Apparently a curriculum based on
the best that the Catholic intellectual tradition has to offer and a relentless
pursuit to "find God in all things" counts for little or nothing in this
regard. What a sad commentary that is on the state of Catholic higher
education!

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Clinton Criticizes Trump’s Child-Care Proposal in Economic Speech

Ally Boguhn

Hillary Clinton may be wooing Republicans alienated by Trump, but she's also laying out economic policies that could shore up her progressive base. Meanwhile, Trump's comments about "Second Amendment people" stopping Hillary Clinton judicial appointments were roundly condemned.

Hillary Clinton may be courting Republicans, but that didn’t stop her from embracing progressive economic policies and criticizing her opponent’s child-care plan this week, and Donald Trump suggested there could be a way for “Second Amendment people” to deal with his rival’s judicial appointments should she be elected.

Clinton Blasts Trump’s Child-Care Proposal, Embraces Progressive Policies in Economic Speech

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took aim at Republican nominee Donald Trump’s recently announced proposal to make the average cost of child care fully deductible during her own economic address Thursday in Michigan.

“We know that women are now the sole or primary breadwinner in a growing number of families. We know more Americans are cobbling together part-time work, or striking out on their own. So we have to make it easier to be good workers, good parents, and good caregivers, all at the same time,” Clinton said before pivoting to address her opponent’s plan. “That’s why I’ve set out a bold vision to make quality, affordable child care available to all Americans and limit costs to 10 percent of family income.”

“Previously, [Trump] dismissed concerns about child care,” Clinton told the crowd. “He said it was, quote, ‘not an expensive thing’ because you just need some blocks and some swings.”

“He would give wealthy families 30 or 40 cents on the dollar for their nannies, and little or nothing for millions of hard-working families trying to afford child care so they can get to work and keep the job,” she continued.

Trump’s child-care proposal has been criticized by economic and family policy experts who say his proposed deductions for the “average” cost of child care would do little to help low- and middle-wage earners and would instead advantage the wealthy. Though the details of his plan are slim, the Republican nominee’s campaign has claimed it would also allow “parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes.” Experts, however, told CNN doing so would be difficult to administer.

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Clinton provided a different way to cut family child-care costs: “I think instead we should expand the Child Tax Credit to provide real relief to tens of millions of working families struggling with the cost of raising children,” Clinton said in Michigan on Thursday. “The same families [Donald Trump’s] plan ignores.”

Clinton also voiced her support for several progressive policy positions in her speech, despite a recent push to feature notable Republicans who now support her in her campaign.

“In her first major economic address since her campaign began actively courting the Republicans turned off by Donald Trump, Clinton made no major pivot to the ideological center,” noted NBC News in a Thursday report on the speech. “Instead, Clinton reiterated several of the policy positions she adopted during her primary fight against Bernie Sanders, even while making a direct appeal to Independent voters and Republicans.”

Those positions included raising the minimum wage, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, advocating for equal pay and paid family leave, and supporting a public health insurance option.

“Today’s speech shows that getting some Republicans to say Donald Trump is unfit to be president is not mutually exclusive with Clinton running on bold progressives ideas like debt-free college, expanding Social Security benefits and Wall Street reform,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement to NBC.

Donald Trump: Could “Second Amendment People” Stop Clinton Supreme Court Picks?

Donald Trump suggested that those who support gun ownership rights may be able to stop Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from appointing judges to the Supreme Court should she be elected.

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump told a crowd of supporters during a Tuesday rally in Wilmington, North Carolina. “By the way … if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people—maybe there is. I don’t know.” 

Trump campaign spokesperson Jason Miller later criticized the “dishonest media” for reporting on Trump’s comments and glossed over any criticism of the candidate in a statement posted to the campaign’s website Tuesday. “It’s called the power of unification―Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” said Miller. “And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”

“This is simple—what Trump is saying is dangerous,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, in a statement responding to the Republican nominee’s suggestion. “A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”

Gun safety advocates and liberal groups swiftly denounced Trump’s comments as violent and inappropriate for a presidential candidate.

“This is just the latest example of Trump inciting violence at his rallies—and one that belies his fundamental misunderstanding of the Second Amendment, which should be an affront to the vast majority of responsible gun owners in America,” Erika Soto Lamb, chief communications officer of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a Tuesday statement. “He’s unfit to be president.”

Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, also said in a Tuesday press release, “There has been no shortage of inexcusable rhetoric from Trump, but suggesting gun violence is truly abhorrent. There is no place in our public discourse for this kind of statement, especially from someone seeking the nation’s highest office.”

Trump’s comments engaged in something called “stochastic terrorism,” according to David Cohen, an associate professor at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, in a Tuesday article for Rolling Stone.

“Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication ‘to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable,’” said Cohen. “Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog.”

“Those of us who work against anti-abortion violence unfortunately know all about this,” Cohen continued, pointing to an article from Valerie Tarico in which she describes a similar pattern of violent rhetoric leading up to the murders that took place at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.

What Else We’re Reading

Though Trump has previously claimed he offered on-site child-care services for his employees, there is no record of such a program, the Associated Press reports.

History News Network attempted to track down how many historians support Trump. They only found five (besides Newt Gingrich).

In an article questioning whether Trump will energize the Latino voting bloc, Sergio Bustos and Nicholas Riccardi reported for the Associated Press: “Many Hispanic families have an immense personal stake in what happens on Election Day, but despite population numbers that should mean political power, Hispanics often can’t vote, aren’t registered to vote, or simply choose to sit out.”

A pair of physicians made the case for why Gov. Mike Pence “is radically anti-public health,” citing the Republican vice presidential candidate’s “policies on tobacco, women’s health and LGBTQ rights” in a blog for the Huffington Post.

Ivanka Trump has tried to act as a champion for woman-friendly workplace policies, but “the company that designs her clothing line, including the $157 sheath she wore during her [Republican National Convention] speech, does not offer workers a single day of paid maternity leave,” reported the Washington Post.

The chair of the American Nazi Party claimed a Trump presidency would be “a real opportunity” for white nationalists.

NPR analyzed how Clinton and Trump might take on the issue of campus sexual assault.

Rewire’s own editor in chief, Jodi Jacobson, explained in a Thursday commentary how Trump’s comments are just the latest example of Republicans’ use of violent rhetoric and intimidation in order to gain power.

Analysis Law and Policy

The Supreme Court Could Give Religiously Affiliated Employers Even More Room to Discriminate

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A series of cases working their way through the courts could expand which businesses get a pass for offering employees discriminatory health and retirement benefits.

You may remember the Little Sisters of the Poor—that group of earnest nuns who challenged the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters, along with dozens of other religiously affiliated nonprofits, have continuously argued that the act of completing a form to be legally excused from complying with the law substantially burdens their religious rights.

Well, the Little Sisters remain tied up in litigation with the Obama administration over birth control, nondiscriminatory insurance coverage, and their religious objections to providing for both. But there’s more at stake here. To be clear, the Sisters are intent on doing everything they can to block comprehensive insurance coverage for their employees, and block third parties from providing it to them as well. But buried in litigation footnotes is a provision of employee benefits law that, if the Sisters and other religiously affiliated organizations get their way, will solidify another pass for discriminatory corporate practices beyond contraception coverage alone.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is the federal law governing employee benefit plans, including retirement accounts and health insurance. Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are charged with ensuring ERISA compliance, which, as you can imagine, makes ERISA a prime target for conservatives who already hate “big government.”

Employer plans governed by ERISA have a few requirements that particularly draw conservative ire. One mandates that employer-sponsored retirement plans meet certain minimum funding levels by the employer. This is to help those plans be meaningful ways for employees to save for retirement, without putting the entire burden on those workers. Another provision forbids those plans from discriminating in benefits, such as matching a higher percentage of a male employee’s retirement contributions than a female one’s, or providing comprehensive health insurance coverage for men but not women. The ACA’s birth control benefit draws upon this theory.

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However, not all employers are required to follow ERISA. In particular, the statute exempts “church plans” from its requirements. ERISA defines church plans as those “established and maintained … for its employees … by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax under section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Church plans also include those plans maintained by an organization “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” The rationale behind the church plan exemption is similar to the rationale behind most religious or ministerial exemptions to other nondiscrimination laws: Religious orders and institutions like churches and synagogues will generally employ people who follow the same religious tenets as they do because those organizations are engaged in spiritual outreach as part of their “business.”

That prohibition on ERISA governing “church plans” is also incorporated into the ACA.

Historically, organizations like the Little Sisters have had a regulatory pass when it came to maintaining retirement plans and insurance coverage that are either underfunded, discriminatory, or both. That’s because both the DOL and the IRS have been generous in their determination of how they interpret “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” And if those agencies determine that an organization has a “church plan,” that, in turn, means it won’t be subjected to a tax penalty for not complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.

Given the explosion of religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and nursing homes, however, the scope of what does and does not qualify as a church plan has become an increasingly important issue. As religiously affiliated employers began to grow well beyond employing people of similar tenets, away from their ministerial core and into marketplace competition with secular, for-profit businesses, it has made less and less sense to allow those employers a pass to discriminate under ERISA.

At least that’s the argument advanced in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the scope of the church plan exemption under ERISA. Those lawsuits include one against Dignity Health Care, the Catholic-affiliated hospital system facing separate lawsuits related to failing to offer comprehensive reproductive health care at its hospitals. According to the allegations in the complaint, Dignity repeatedly underfunded its retirement plan in violation of ERISA. Dignity responded by arguing its plans were church plans and not subject to ERISA oversight.

Neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bought Dignity’s argument, holding there was no way that when Congress created the church plan exception, it intended the exemption to stretch as far as to shield the country’s fifth-largest health-care employer from regulatory oversight.

That question presented in the Dignity case—of just how broadly that exemption extends—could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The Roberts Court is considering a pair of cases with this exact issue at their center. Both involve religiously affiliated hospitals, and both have appellate court decisions ruling that organizations like Dignity, which are not actually churches nor actually maintained by religious orders, may not qualify for the church plan exemption.

Which brings us back to the Little Sisters, on whose cases these organizations will undoubtedly base some of their own arguments. The Little Sisters do have a church plan. And it should mean that they will never have to comply with the birth control benefit anyway—which would give them no standing to challenge the ACA’s accommodation. But this is not the argument the Little Sisters and their attorneys want the courts or the public to hear. Instead, the litigation has focused on whether or not completing the form for the birth control accommodation would be a substantial burden for the nuns, despite the fact that at this point under ERISA, there is no question that the federal government could penalize the Little Sisters for refusing to comply with the contraception benefit.

However, the Little Sisters are more than just a group of nuns. They own and operate facilities that employ and serve others. The DOL and IRS have, to date, agreed that the Little Sisters benefits plan is in fact a church plan. But that is in part because without switching plan administrators, the question of whether or not their employee benefits package still qualifies for the exemption has not arisen again. If and when the Little Sisters do switch plans or administrators, the status of their benefits exemption will come up.

At some point during oral arguments in March in Zubik v. Burwell, the conglomerate of cases challenging the accommodation process to the birth control benefit, the fact that the Little Sisters had a church plan and would never be subject to having to comply with the benefit did come up. Paul Clement, who represented the nuns, skillfully dodged the question of whether there was a church plan issue for the Little Sisters. Instead of acknowledging that fact—one even established in the record as an assumption the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was making earlier in the litigation to move the case along—Clement assured the justices the church plan wasn’t really something the Court needed to concern itself with at the moment.

Maybe that’s because Clement and the nuns were hoping that if nobody noticed the pass given Little Sisters in their challenge to the birth control benefit, nobody would notice when hospitals and nursing homes also argue for the right to provide discriminatory retirement benefits and cite Zubik for their authority to do so. Maybe they didn’t know about the fight brewing in the appellate courts over which enormous corporate entities are shielded from regulatory nondiscrimination laws like provisions in ERISA and the ACA.

That seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?

While it may be dry as toast, the church plan exemption under ERISA is critically important. As we’ve seen throughout the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, when employers are allowed to opt out, the effect disproportionately falls on poor women and women of color. And the wages offered to hospital and nursing home workers? They hardly are the kind to lift a person up to more stable financial footing. Which is all another way to say that conservatives’ assertions that institutions like Dignity Health fulfill some spiritual mission and should therefore be treated like a church are all smoke and bluster. Instead, these institutions want cover for ongoing attempts to nickel-and-dime their own workers and to discriminate, based on religious beliefs, when it comes to how and whom these institutions serve. And they’re hoping the Roberts Court will give it to them this next term.

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