It has been six years since Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal arts school near Charlotte, North Carolina, filed the first lawsuit challenging the federal contraception mandate. “It’s hard to believe it’s gone on for this long,” college president William Thierfelder told CNA Oct. 9.
Last week, the Trump administration announced revisions to the HHS mandate, a regulation introduced by the Obama administration that required employers to fund employee health care plans covering contraception, sterilization, and some drugs that can cause early abortions. The revisions considerably expand exemptions for religious groups and others with moral or ethical objections to the demands of the mandate.
Thierfelder said he is grateful that the current administration has acknowledged the original mandate as violating the right to religious freedom and is taking action to correct it.
Founded by Benedictine monks, Belmont Abbey College adheres to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life and sexuality. When the HHS mandate was unveiled in 2011, Thierfelder knew the college could not in good conscience comply.
“We actually filed in November 2011, and it’s kind of interesting how we became the first ones to sue the federal government, because you would think it’s the most unlikely of all places — this little Benedictine monastery and college in the south,” he said. “We had some issues with other governmental agencies prior to the mandate coming out,” he explained. “And so when this mandate did come out, we were particularly sensitive to what it was saying…I think we knew where this was going to go, and we just said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this now, before it’s imposed on us’.”
Thierfelder knew several people at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and they discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit. He had expected to be joined in his initial filing by numerous other plaintiffs, particularly Catholic employers. But for various reasons, other organizations were not ready to take legal action yet, so Belmont Abbey decided to move forward as the lone plaintiff. Over the next year, however, additional lawsuits would start to pour in.
“When people saw this little Catholic college in the south with no resources suing the federal government, I think it sort of woke people up to say, ‘I guess we should do something too.’ And from that point, a couple of Protestant colleges were next…and then little by little it started, and then there was kind of an avalanche.”
Ultimately, more than 300 plaintiffs from across the country would file lawsuits challenging the mandate. These included dozens of religious charities, universities, and Catholic dioceses, as well as individuals, U.S. states, and for-profit companies whose owners opposed the mandate on religious grounds.
Thierfelder described the months that followed as a “legal chess game” with various lawsuits receiving different initial rulings based on whether they were in favorable or unfavorable court districts, and the varying strength of individual cases. With re-filings due to legal technicalities, and several cases combining as they worked their way through the courts, the years that followed were filled with waiting and uncertainty.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Thierfelder said, “and I’m very, very happy about what just came out, although it’s not over yet.” Belmont Abbey’s case, like many others, will now need to be considered by a court with the newly announced possibility for an exemption taken into account. While the mandate revisions offer strong reason to believe that Belmont Abbey will receive a favorable resolution, Thierfelder said that in his mind, the big-picture battle is not over.
“I still see us at the beginning of this, because this was still a very narrow exemption, the way it was structured. So although this may be good for us, there may be other businesses and individuals who still have issues with this.” He also noted that the Oct. 6 revision is an “interim rule” rather than a final rule. Additionally, several states and organizations have threatened legal action against the modifications to the mandate, and a future administration could always attempt to change the rules back.
“I think we’ve got to be pretty resolute. I’ve said this from the beginning…I really do believe you’ve got to have the complete resolution that you are willing to die for what you believe,” he said. “In our country, I don’t think it’s going to come to that,” he said, “but having dealt with this for so long, and having seen the arguments on the other side … it really almost seems all or none. Either you get what you want or they get what they want, and there’s no in-between ground at this point. So it’s unfortunate, but that’s where we are.”
In general, the Belmont Abbey community has been very supportive of the college’s decision to take legal action against the mandate over the last six years, Thierfelder said. “I think it’s been an education for everybody, in a lot of ways: how our government works, what religious liberty is. I think at the beginning, people thought, ‘Is the HHS mandate an important issue, and what it is really about?’ and I think what people started to see is that this is a detail, but it was really infringing on our religious liberty.”
Thierfelder also hopes that the general public recognizes religious liberty as a right inherent to every human being. “Because organizations were continually discussed — be it a religious organization like Belmont Abbey College or Hobby Lobby or something else — it could seem like this was more about organizations somehow fighting for religious liberty, when in fact this is a right that every human being has,” he said.
Moving forward, the Belmont Abbey College president said he will continue to pay careful attention to religious freedom issues. “I’ve really pushed for religious liberty. Not that from a Catholic perspective we can’t very readily defend our beliefs on contraception or abortion or any other important issue related to the human person and relationships. But I think the way to approach this is based on religious liberty, because it is an inalienable right that everybody has been given,” he said. “We certainly could argue the individual detailed cases or facts that comes to us, but religious liberty is an issue we need to say focused on.”