Deal W. Hudson
February 14, 2008
Belmont Abbey College is one of the few Catholic colleges in the southeastern United States, located about ten miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, its president and chancellor are currently embroiled in a defense of the college’s Catholic identity against eight faculty members who insist on insurance coverage for voluntary sterilization, abortion, and contraception.
Here’s the story…
Founded by Benedictine Monks in 1876, Belmont Abbey College has 120 faculty and 1,200 students. Under its new president, Dr. William Thierfelder, the college has begun to get national attention with an aggressive and innovative advertising campaign (found on InsideCatholic.com and numerous other Catholic publications).
I talked with Ken Davison, Vice President for College Relations, about the sequence of events that led to the present controversy.
The college asked its insurance carrier, Wellpath, to meet with faculty and staff to brief them on their various insurance options. Following the meeting, a faculty member, reading the documents closely, discovered the coverage for voluntary sterilization, abortion, and contraception, and alerted the administration by e-mail.
The president immediately asked Wellpath to remove this coverage, since they ran contrary to Catholic teaching. The faculty and staff then received an e-mail memo explaining that the coverage had been changed and why. (While the state requires this coverage, it offers an exemption for religious institutions.)
The Vice President of Administration and Finance then received an e-mail complaining about the changes in insurance coverage. As Davison says, “The next thing we knew our legal counsel received notice from EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] that a complaint had been filed that the changes in insurance coverage were discriminatory on the basis of sex and religion.”
The charges had been filed by eight Belmont Abbey faculty – six men and two women. In addition, the college found out that one faculty member had complained to the Department of Insurance about the insurance changes and the religious exemption.
Unfortunately for the community of Belmont Abbey College, this all broke out during the Christmas holidays.
On January 16, a letter was mailed by the National Women’s Law Center to the president threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the eight faculties. The letter demanded that the college reinstate the coverage, and pay any damages and out-of-pocket costs.
Two days later, the president and chancellor held a meeting of faculty and staff and explained why Belmont Abbey College could not offer this coverage. As Davison told me, “This insurance coverage is contrary to the clear moral teaching of the Catholic Church so we will not offer nor will we subsidize these medical services. To do so would be contrary to our stated Catholic mission and identity.”
On January 25, the professor who had complained to the Department of Insurance received a letter stating that Belmont Abbey College qualified for the religious exemption. The response of this faculty member was to ask the National Women’s Law Center to contest the decision.
This is where things stand at present: Belmont Abbey College has hired legal counsel to reply to the EEOC complaints. Thus far, no lawsuit has been filed by the National Women’s Law Center, and the decision of the state insurance department has not been reversed.
President Thierfelder recently sent a letter to faculty and staff addressing the controversy. He was asked why he and the chancellor did not consult the faculty or other administrators in making changes to the insurance coverage. Here is what he wrote:
The teaching of the Catholic Church on this moral issue is clear. The responsibility of the College as a Catholic College sponsored by the monks of Belmont Abbey to follow Church teaching is equally clear. There was no other course of action possible if we were to operate in fidelity to our mission and to our identity as a Catholic College. Therefore, consultation was not an option. However, Abbot Placid and I have publicly and repeatedly expressed a willingness to discuss the matter at any time with anyone who would like to talk to us.
Catholics have been crying out for Catholic colleges to reaffirm their identity. In President Thierfielder and Abbot Placid Solari, we have examples of leadership committed to following the moral teachings of the Church wherever they lead.
Such bold leadership should be applauded.