Attorney, author and professor David Neipert, a senior Fulbright scholar in law, is a former associate professor of international business at Belmont Abbey College.
I am one of the faculty members who asked the EEOC to review Belmont Abbey College's policy on contraception. I write in response to the guest post of Oct. 15 by Rabbi Yaakov Menken ("Watch this case").
In the first paragraph Rabbi Menken states that Belmont Abbey College "is, without question, a religious institution, guided by the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church." In fact Belmont Abbey College has never been a particularly religious institution. The majority of its faculty, staff, students, and alumni are not Catholic. When I was hired I was assured by the then president, division head, and department chair that I would not be expected to adopt Catholic practices and that not being Catholic would not affect my career in any way. Without this assurance I would not have taken the job. The college then 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?
Before the event made the subject of Rabbi Menken's column the college had offered prescription contraceptives as part of its health plan for 26 years indicating that this was a change of a deliberate policy, not the correction of a casual mistake.
In the second paragraph Rabbi Menken states that, upon discovering that the college health plan covered abortion, sterilization, and contraception "William Thierfelder, immediately altered the plan." This is true and the plan was altered even though the faculty had already been through its benefits enrollment process and the college was contractually obligated to fulfill its written agreement to provide the benefits it promised for the rest of the school year. The proper time to make changes would have been at the next annual enrollment but the college chose not to provide the benefits. College procedure was for any change in employee benefits to be made in consultation with the staff and faculty welfare committees. This was not done. However, there was no move among the faculty and staff to restore the abortion or sterilization benefits. Many, however, wanted the college to reconsider the decision with regard to contraceptives. The overwhelming majority of employees, including the Catholics had no problem with them and had signed up to receive them at the invitation of the college only a few weeks earlier.
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.
Rabbi Menken said that we went "running to the EEOC." Actually we went there as a last resort when the college refused to fulfill its contract, refused to follow its published procedures, and refused to discuss our many problems in a spirit of working things out amicably. Before we went to EEOC I even wrote a polite letter to the administration pointing out the possible legal pitfalls in their actions. The letter went unanswered. We had no choice but to request help from EEOC.
Note that 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).
Despite the Rabbi's inference, we had absolutely no intention to launch a government attack on religious freedom. Instead our intent was and is to protect our religious freedom not to have religious practices imposed upon us by our employer. 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. As I said in the comment section of Rabbi Menken's post 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. A business owned by a Hindu might fire an employee seen eating beef on company premises. I could go on and on but you can see that it is best to let each employee decide for himself or herself, freely without coercion, how to practice religion. If the law requires that an employer offer contraception 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.
Rabbie Menken suggests that this action is a conspiracy of the Obama administration. Baloney. As a Senior Fulbright scholar who has worked to repair the damage in a number of former socialist countries I can assure the reader that I am no fan of silver tongued orators with glittering talk of how the government is going to assemble a paradise for the working man. I speak only for myself, not all eight of us. Some of us are liberal, some conservative, some Catholic and some not. We are doing what we are doing for the principle involved, not Obama's political agenda. George Bush was president when we complained to EEOC.
Finally, I would like to focus on the statement by the president of Belmont Abbey College that he would rather shut down the school than offer contraceptive benefits. Rabbi Menken seems to applaud this stand. I do not agree. In making these comments please note that I no longer work at Belmont Abbey so I am not directly affected by what happens there. I no longer have a direct interest in this matter and have no reason to be self-serving. I am, however, concerned for those still involved at the college.
A college president should consider the whole picture at the college including the faculty and staff who have devoted a working lifetime to the place, the alumni whose degrees have more value if the college remains ongoing and accredited, the donors who might not feel their gift would be put to good use at a college that might soon close, and the students who have invested their time, money, and hard work to earn credits that may not transfer if the college goes under. I hope for the sake of all the aforementioned that the college president considers his responsibilities as a college president as seriously as he seems to take his role as a Catholic layman. Such statements are counterproductive whether he is bluffing or not.