Belmont Abbey president slams contraception rule
WASHINGTON The president of Belmont Abbey College joined religious leaders of different faiths who converged Thursday on Capitol Hill and charged the Obama administration with trying to violate their religious freedoms.
William Thierfelder told a congressional oversight committee that his Catholic liberal arts college in Gaston County was fighting the president's "morally objectionable mandate" that requires church-affiliated employers to cover birth control in their health plans.
"I don't think there should be any compromise when it comes to our rights to religious freedom," Thierfelder said. "I came here to ask for your help. This is an issue worth dying for."
Leaders from the Catholic, Jewish, Baptist and Lutheran faiths took part in a highly politicized hearing led by one of President Barack Obama's chief critics, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. But for those leaders, the issue was deeply serious and personal, touching on one of the basic tenets of the nation's democracy and raising questions about government's place in the faith community.
Thierfelder said it is the belief at Belmont Abbey, and at many other religious organizations, that contraception, sterilization and abortion are against God's law. He said it's a sin for the college to facilitate access to these services.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department issued a final rule Jan. 20 that required all women to be able to receive access to free preventive care services, including contraceptives.
The proposal includes a religious exemption for churches and other groups whose main purpose is spreading religious beliefs, but the administration argues that the separation of church and state doesn't allow religious groups operating in the public marketplace to discriminate against employees.
Last Friday, Obama sought to mitigate the controversy by proposing that insurance companies would pay the costs of birth control instead of the religious employers.
Americans are narrowly divided over the proposed federal rule, according to a new Pew Research Center study released Wednesday. Some 48 percent support the exemption, and 44 percent say religious-affiliated institutions should be required to cover contraceptives like other employers.
Hearing sparks controversy
Thierfelder joined 10 other religious leaders and experts, including Catholic bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University in New York City, at a House oversight committee hearing titled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?"
The first panel of five religious leaders and experts included no women, raising heated objections from the Democratic members of the committee. Two women testified against the proposal in the second panel, which included Thierfelder.
U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called the hearing "a sham" and posted photos of the first male panel on Twitter. He questioned why the religious leaders would allow themselves to be part of an exercise that he said was intended to embarrass the president in an election year.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., characterized the hearing as a broad attack on contraceptive use by women across the country.
"I look at this panel, and I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning," she said. "Where are the women?"
But U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Cherryville Republican, said the hearing was not a question about access to contraception but about religious freedom.
"I don't think there is any movement afoot to ban contraceptives. That's not what this is about," said McHenry, who graduated from Belmont Abbey College. "It's about forcing religious institutions with deeply held moral convictions to do something that is counter to their faith."
The leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Obama's contraception compromise in a letter to its membership. But not all Catholic organizations are against the proposal.
The president of the Catholic Health Association, Carol Keehan, said in a statement that she was "pleased and grateful" for an early resolution to an issue that addressed the needs of many ministries.
A second run-in for college
Under the proposal, employers who fail to provide health-insurance coverage under the federal law could be fined $2,000 per employee per year.
Thierfelder said Belmont Abbey College would have to pay about $300,000 a year in fines.
The school, which has about 1,700 students, sued the Obama administration late last year to stop the government order.
This is not the college's first run-in with the Obama administration. In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that Belmont Abbey was violating federal law by refusing to include prescription contraceptives in its health care plan.
"We're not trying to enforce our beliefs on anybody," Thierfelder said. "However, our beliefs are very important to us. What we're asking is that we're not coerced into violating our beliefs."