Belmont Abbey Head: Washington Instructed Officials Pursue Discrimination Charges
'It is absolute, unequivocal... impossible for us to go against the teachings of the Catholic Church in any way.' (Dr. William Thierfelder)
(Pictured: Dr. William Thierfelder, the President of Belmont Abbey College)'My understanding is it went to Washington, and that it was in Washington where this was decided, not the Charlotte office.'
Eight BAC faculty members filed a complaint against the college for removing coverage for abortion, sterilization, and contraception from their employee health insurance, supplied by Wellpath. The faculty first complained to the North Carolina Department of Insurance that BAC was required to cover contraception under state law because it did not qualify for the religious employer exemption. Both the state department and Wellpath, however, disagreed with the complainants.
"If you ever came on this campus, the first thing you see is the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians," said Thierfelder. "That basilica is connected to a monastery. That monastery is connected to the main administration building."
The group of complainants, who joined forces with the National Women's Law Center, then made a gender discrimination complaint to the EEOC, which in March informed the Abbey that it had closed the issue. Two months later, the EEOC reversed its decision.
"By denying prescription contraception drugs, Respondent [the college] is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives," wrote Reuben Daniels Jr., the EEOC Charlotte District Office Director in the determination. "By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women."
"You can imagine we were very surprised when, after having received the first letter, then later received another letter saying: 'Disregard the first letter. We're going to reconsider this now,'" said Thierfelder.
Asked what he thought caused the reversal, Theirfelder said, "My understanding is it went to Washington, and that it was in Washington where this was decided, not the Charlotte office." He says he gathered this information "from conversations we had with people at EEOC here in Charlotte who told us that's where this had gone to, and that's where it was being discussed and decided upon."
Thierfelder said he did not know if it was the EEOC's initiative that brought the affair to a higher level, or the complaining parties. Multiple calls made by LSN to the EEOC Charlotte District Office were unanswered at press time.
The EEOC response also accused the college of causing a "chilling effect" by publishing the names of the eight faculty members in an internal memo. Thierfelder pointed out that the eight had already broadcast the affair to local newspapers and the Internet of their own accord.
Thierfelder said he believed the decision marked a dangerous precedent.
"From a religious freedom standpoint, you don't have religious freedom," he said. Thierfelder stressed, however, that the college has "gotten a lot of support from people who are not Catholic, and who may not share our beliefs on abortion, sterilization, contraception…they see the principle and what they're saying is, 'Belmont Abbey College is not trying to tell anybody what they have to do, it's just saying what Belmont Abbey College will do.' And I think that's an important distinction."
"To try to make us change [our beliefs], there's something very wrong with that," he continued. "And I think that's why this has garnered so much attention, and especially with the health care debates that are going on right now, and with all the things that are going on with Catholic hospitals ... what they are basically saying is, if you're Catholic, or if you are of any faith, it doesn't mean anything. You're going to do what the government tells you to do."
Thierfelder acknowledged that the fight could go to the courts, and emphasized that BAC officials were united in maintaining fidelity to Catholic Church teaching against pressure from the government.
"All of us need to have moral courage in today's world," he said. "We are so resolute in our commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church that there is no possible way we would ever deviate from it, and if it came down to it ... we would close the school rather than give in.
"So it is absolute, unequivocal, impossible for us to go against the teachings of the Catholic Church in any way. There is no form of compromise that is possible."
To contact the EEOC:
Chairman, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
131 M Street, NE
Washington, DC 20507
Phone: (202) 663-4900
TTY: (202) 663-4494
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