At Belmont Abbey, Catholics Fight Back

The first counterattack on behalf of religious liberty has, perhaps, begun.

Earlier this month, Belmont Abbey College, a small, century-old Benedictine college in North Carolina that has deep devotion to its Catholic identity, sued the federal government for violating its rights to worship freely because of certain provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, know as “Obamacare.” Among other things, the Act requires institutions to include the provision of coverage for abortion and contraceptives as part of their insurance plans. Providing such coverage would, of course, violate the Catholic principles of Belmont Abbey and countless other religious institutions.

As has been widely reported, before filing this suit, Belmont Abbey struggled against the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that had claimed the college was “discriminating” against women for not including such services in its insurance coverage. Remarkably, Belmont Abbey is almost the only Catholic educational institution to resist the act or similar laws that have been passed across the country at the state level. Georgetown University for example, shamefully submitted to a DC “human rights” law that goes further than even the Act in undermining its religious identity as a Catholic college. In Illinois, a formerly Catholic social-service agency broke with the Church to become unaffiliated with the Church in order to comply with a state law requiring foster agencies to consider same-sex couples.  If this Act continues unchallenged, more colleges will have to decide whether to make Belmont Abbey’s brave choice.

Belmont Abbey’s complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, lays bare the combination of ideological leftism and crony capitalism that lay at the heart of the Act’s provisions. On the one hand, the act is directed toward religious institutions. There is no generally-applicable religious exemption. Rather, the Act exempts only those religious institutions that primarily employ people of the same faith, primarily serve people of the same faith, and whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values.  This kind of exemption may exempt convents or monasteries, but it is a direct attack on the ability of the Church to perform the corporal (and most of the spiritual) works of mercy.  Colleges, to say nothing of hospitals, hospices, or homes for the aged or disabled, have more than one purpose, and it is part of the Catholic mission to serve others, even those not of the same faith.  Indeed, as William K. Thierfelder, President of the Abbey, stated the narrowness of the exemption “is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in needs, regardless of faith differences.” One is tempted to think that perhaps the legislators and bureaucrats are simply ignorant that the responsibility of Christians to act for others is enjoined upon them by their faith; or perhaps they are all too aware.

There is no requirement, of course, that  the government even grant such exemptions.  And in formulating the regulations implementing the Act, as the complaint sets out, the government turned to anti-religious entities to advise it on which procedures should be included within the provisions, and basically ignored religious institutions that might have a different view.  This sad legislative history is of a piece with similar laws being passed at the state level; in some instances, the legislative records makes clear that the targets of these laws are Catholic institutions, as the Church is usually the only alternative to state-run or secular institutions.

But of course some entities are more equal than others. As the complaint details, thousands of one-off exemptions to the rules have been granted, usually to big corporations or political supporters of the Democratic Party (such as big labor — oh how far we have come from labor being a bastion of Catholic workers, who might have resisted benefitting where the Church was being targeted).  This system, as the complaint states, sets up what is in effect an arbitrary and capricious application of the law.  If an entity has the ‘right” values or access to the right politicians, obtaining an exemption is apparently not a problem.

The substantive legal claims asserted by the College’s lawyers — the invaluable Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — rest primarily on the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as what is called the Administrative Procedures Act, which regulates how regulations such as that imposed here, should be applied.  The strategy is the right one, as the complaint focuses on what should be obvious:  these provisions are not narrowly-tailored to achieve a worthwhile end, such as improving healthcare, but in fact are designed to discriminate against religious groups whose beliefs put them at odds with the secular consensus.  To force Belmont Abbey into compliance would place (as the legal standard has it) an “undue burden” upon it, and would force it to announce principles contrary to its faith.  It should be clear, as the abbot of the college’s monks, Abbot Placid, stated, “Belmont Abbey College is not imposing its beliefs on anyone….  Contraceptives and sterilization are readily available to anyone. The college simply cannot pay for them and thus leaves them to the private decisions of individuals. Since it publicly presents itself as a Catholic institution, the college, if it is to operate with integrity, must conform to the public and authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church.”

This case is the test of the conflict between a coercive secular liberalism and religious freedom – not just of the Church but of all people of faith.  As law professor Robert Vischer notes in his important recent book Conscience and the Common Good, the understanding of conscience that such laws propose is sharply at odds with American Constitutional tradition.  The freedom to worship is a basic right, indeed the freedom of religion has been called “the first liberty.”  That right requires the government to “make no law” that might infringe upon it.  In contrast, the contemporary understanding of rights allows the government to intervene on behalf of one party asserting its “rights’ against another private party.  The government weighs in on which “rights” it believes to be more important.  Here, the Act essentially requires the government to force institutions to act contrary to their beliefs, in order to favor other groups.  This approach — which the mainstream secular media hardly discusses — is potentially very dangerous to religious believers, who can no longer be secure that their freedom will not be infringed in the name of some other, secular value.

Gerald J. Russello


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The morally bankrupt Obama administration is simply doing the Catholic Church a favor – dividing the sheep from the goats.

    Does anyone know the diferecne between a Belmont Abbey and a Georgetown? Hint: One is a Catholic institution.

    More proof that Catholics need to work together to rid ourselves of the plague at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

  • TomD

    Too often, in the spirit of “can’t we all just get along,” many Catholics would rather be in harmony with the secular world than to adhere to Church teaching.

    “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:14, RSV-CE).

  • Aaron (one of the 23.9%)

    Thank you for the informative article: there are many such objections being made to Obamacare, but the media generally tries to ignore, minimize, or distort them. The one observation that I might add is that this provision should also, frighteningly, remind us of the “liberal” tyranny of the Soviet Union. Few remember that the Soviet constitution also absolutely guaranteed religious liberty. The first stage of the protection of this liberty, of course, was making sure than no current unbeliever was ever taught—or even encountered–the doctrines of a religion, lest they be persuaded and thus have their rights infringed upon. Of course, this meant no evangelization, but it also, eventually, meant that it was questionable whether you could even teach your own children about your faith without infringing upon their religious liberty. What this provision of Obamacare does is nothing less than remove Catholic institutions from the public life of the nation in a very similar manner, and with very similar justification, as in the Soviet Union. Catholic institutions, unless they are willing to cease being Catholic, cannot hire non-Catholics or serve non-Catholics, and they must essentially wear armbands warning anyone who interacts with them that their main purpose is the inculcation of Catholic values (not, for instance, providing a liberal education, charity for the poor, or healthcare for those who do not wish to be on the public dole). What room is there left for any Catholic organization (including the Church itself!) to discourse with the rest of the society?

  • I’m truly glad to hear that a Catholic college is taking up this fight with what seems to be a solid constitutional objection. Still, the situation that necessitates the action, and the atmosphere generated by it, are deeply unsettling to me. Only two generations ago, this country was a haven for Catholics when the economic or political situations in their home countries were unbearable. Such was the case for my grandfather, who immigrated here from Italy as a child in the 1930’s. I don’t like the thought that the United States is not a friendly home for traditional Catholic institutions anymore; I wonder how this will bear itself out in the treatment of faithful Catholic individuals and families.

  • HV Observer

    I think that Belmont Abbey should really draw a line in the sand.

    It should offer health insurance that, on purpose, does not cover the evil products and services.

    It should say: “We have a moral obligation to offer health insurance to our dependents. We have a further obligation, however, to ensure that such insurance will not pay for these evil products and services. We answer to a higher authority. Any demand from a lesser authority (e.g., a government) to offer such products and services will be rejected. That is all.”

    • Micha Elyi

      Ain’t no such “moral obligation.”

  • The Old Testament tells of a certain pagan god that many peoples throughout the region worshipped: the god Moloch. The Ammonites, the Canaanites, Phoenicians, even as far away as Carthage, practiced the worship of Moloch. Moloch even finds his way into John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Throughout the Old Testament, Jehovah expressly forbids the worship of Moloch, under the punishment of death. The worship of this pagan god is one of the practices common in the Northern Kingdom of Israel that brought down God’s Judgment upon them. Why such a strong reaction to this one of many competing regional deities? Because, the adherents of Moloch regularly practiced child sacrifice. The 12th century rabbi, Rashi, describes their ritual:

    Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.

    The most common reason to sacrifice one’s child to Moloch was in hopes that the pagan deity would bless the family with prosperity. In the hopes of financial gain, families would murder their own newborns. Thank God, we are so much more civilized than they…

    Excerpted from The Four Pillars of the Kingdom

    Over 1 million (1,000,000) abortions are performed every year in the United States. Forty percent of minors who have had an abortion claim that their parents never even knew. It is estimated that, at current rates, nearly 1/3 of all American women will eventually have an abortion. Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v Wade, there have been over 50 million abortions performed in the United States. That is more than the entire population of Spain and roughly the combined population of California and New York. What is the most common reason for having an abortion: money or, to be more precise, the lack of it. We will go into debt, take on a second job, beg, borrow, and steal to be able to afford a new car, a vacation, more high-tech toys, but a child is expendable. Fifty million children, sacrificed to Moloch, the 21st century pagan God of Choice.

    In Paradise Lost, Milton describes Moloch as one of the fallen angels, a demon-warrior:

    MOLOCH, horrid King besmear’d with blood Of human sacrifice, and parents tears, Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,

    Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire

    To his grim Idol

    Thank God, we are so much more civilized than they…

  • Dan

    Of course, if Belmont Abbey loses its case it still must resist the law. It has to. Let the world see the Federal Government send in its troops to force a Catholic institution to betray the Faith. Maybe then, just maybe, a few more people will wake up to the Fascist/Communist amalgam our government has morphed into.

  • MinneCatholic

    I keep hearing more and more good things about Belmont Abbey College. This would be a fine place to send young Catholics for a quality education. We must do more to support this orthodox and, at least from what I read, high educational quality institutions.

  • WSquared

    Mr. Russello, please be very careful to distinguish between “freedom of worship” and “freedom to practice.” Catholics in China have “freedom of worship.” What you describe in this article is freedom to practice.

  • John Zmirak

    Here’s one way to resist, which if done broadly enough would work: Every Catholic institution worth its salt ought to announce that it’s discontinuing health care coverage, but providing a van service for employees to public emergency wards–and that it will encourage them to refuse payment for all services rendered there, and supply legal assistance in fighting off attempts at collection. This is the kind of unjust law (UNLIKE our immigration laws) which should and must be flouted.