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Abbey's road

Healthcare Mandate | The case of a small Benedictine college-and federal attempts to pressure it to pay for employees' contraception-could foretell the loss of religious freedom after Congress overhauls healthcare

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

For the 18 Benedictine monks living in a 142-year-old monastery in the tiny town of Belmont, N.C., life is intentionally simple: They rise early for prayer in a Gothic-style Basilica with wooden pews and hand-painted windows; they take care of the two-story monastery built with hand-hewn bricks; and they vow fidelity to Roman Catholic doctrine and teaching.

These days, that simplicity has grown complicated by a thorny combination: healthcare and the federal government.

The trouble stems from a conflict brewing at Belmont Abbey College, the 1,600-student, Catholic college connected to the monastery. Earlier this year, eight Belmont Abbey faculty members filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over a school policy rooted in Catholic doctrine: The college refuses to include birth control in its healthcare coverage for employees, citing Catholic teaching against contraceptives. The school also refuses to cover abortion or sterilization.

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The EEOC district office in nearby Charlotte, N.C., initially dismissed the complaint in March but suddenly reversed course: A July 30 letter from District Office Director Reuben Daniels claimed the college is discriminating against women by refusing to pay for birth control, despite the school's religious objection to the practice. The implication was clear: In this case, an accusation of gender discrimination trumps religious freedom.

For Belmont Abbey president William Thierfelder, that's unacceptable: "This is one of those things that as Catholics-as our faith dictates-we cannot do this." To that end, the school has enlisted the Becket Fund, a D.C.-based religious liberty law firm, to handle the case with far-reaching implications for religious freedom. Thierfelder and others wonder: If the federal government requires a religious institution to pay for birth control, why couldn't it also require that organization-or others-to pay for abortion?

Others see another implication for religious institutions like Belmont Abbey in the current healthcare debate: What if the proposed public option that Congress is considering eventually crowds out the private healthcare plans that religious organizations often use? That's a scenario that could leave some religious organizations-and individuals of faith-with few choices for balancing healthcare plans with moral convictions.

Healthcare overhaul is gathering congressional momentum: All five committees with healthcare jurisdiction have passed their versions of reform-something that didn't happen under the last healthcare push under Bill Clinton.

Now with debate moving to the center stages of the House and Senate chambers, lawmakers from both parties are no doubt gearing up for their C-SPAN close-ups. And sure to be at the controversial center of the upcoming debate: the creation of a government-run insurance option. Such a public plan has weathered the storms of the summer's town hall gatherings where citizens protested more governmental control: Four of the five committee-approved bills include some sort of public option. "You'd have to say this process isn't moving to the right," said Greg D'Angelo with the Heritage Foundation.

The public option is far from a slam-dunk: A wing of moderate Democrats in both chambers is withholding support. But, even while the public option is being debated, reform proponents, with little fanfare, have embedded other elements in the bills that could soon replicate for believers nationwide the Gordian Knot now facing Belmont Abbey.

The first ingredient for turning the government into the nation's doctor-in-chief: The bills empower the health and human services secretary, currently pro-abortion advocate Kathleen Sebelius, to set minimum standard requirements for coverage.

"Every plan creates a healthcare dictator, and I use that term because she will get to dictate what is covered and what isn't," argues David Stevens, who heads the Christian Medical Association (CMA).

The second ingredient is the expected inclusion of an individual mandate to buy a government-approved policy or pay a penalty. Twila Brase, president of Citizens' Council on Health Care, fears that Americans will soon be forced to purchase insurance that includes required government-approved procedures that many may find objectionable.

"Never before has the federal government required its citizens to use their money to buy something," says Brase.

Few doubt that if a public plan becomes a reality it will include abortion coverage. Amendments to exclude abortion coverage specifically in the federal mandates or to provide religious exemptions for medical providers failed 17 times in various congressional committees. Instead, House lawmakers adopted an amendment that allows both a public plan and federally subsidized private plans to cover all abortions. Christians may even find reduced choices in the private marketplace as insurance companies stop offering plans that aren't federally approved.

Equally worrisome: how the bills set up penalties and regulations that would not only create a government-run plan but provide financial incentives for employers to send their employees into the federal healthcare system.

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