Belmont Abbey president testifies before Congress on religious freedom
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The president of Belmont Abbey College appeared before Congress Feb.16 to discuss the state of religious freedom in the Obama administration.
Dr. William Thierfelder was one of 10 witnesses who testified at the hearing, "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience." The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., held the hearing.
Read the full testimony.
The subject of the testimony was the broader theme of religious freedom. Dr. Thierfelder focused on the recent HHS mandate "accomodation" announced by President Obama Feb. 10.
Thierfelder told members that Belmont Abbey is in a fight against the Obama administration's “morally objectionable mandate.” He said it is their belief that contraception, sterilization and abortion are against God’s law. He said that is what they teach their students.
Employers that fail to provide health insurance coverage under the federal law could be fined $2,000 per employee per year. Thierfelder said Belmont Abbey would have to pay $300,000 a year in fines.
Their lawsuit is one of three cases filed by the Becket Fund against the Obama Administration. The others are Colorado Christian University and EWTN.
More on the hearing
Individuals from a variety of religious backgrounds testified at a congressional hearing about the threat to religious freedom posed by a new federal contraception policy.
Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. explained that the debate is not about whether contraception should be illegal but whether religious employers that object should be "forced to pay for it."
At a Feb. 16 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Bishop Lori joined other witnesses to testify about religious liberty concerns presented by the Obama administration's contraception mandate.
The mandate will require many religious employers to violate their consciences by purchasing health insurance plans that include contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs at no cost to employees.
Bishop Lori, who leads the U.S. bishops' religious liberty committee, compared the mandate to a law requiring all delicatessens, including Jewish ones, to serve pork.
He asked whether a customer could "come to a kosher deli, demand to be served a ham sandwich, and if refused, bring down severe government sanction on the deli."
"In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no," he said.
The bishop said that the mandate reaches "into the internal governance of our religious bodies" and forces them to use their own resources, either directly or indirectly, to provide coverage of services that violate Catholic teaching.
He also criticized the "accommodation" offered by the Obama administration on Feb. 10 as "simply unworkable" because of the large number of religious insurers and self-insured religious entities that would still be forced to pay directly for things to which they object.
Under the "accommodation" for religious freedom, religious employers will not directly purchase the coverage they object to, but will instead be forced to purchase a policy from an insurance company that will be required to provide the coverage free of charge.
Bishop Lori said that the administration had "no prior consultation" with the U.S. bishops before announcing the "accommodation."
He also responded to Catholic Health Association's positive reaction to the new policy, which the Obama administration has been using to justify its decision.
"Catholic Health Association does not speak for the Church as a whole," Bishop Lori said. "The Catholic bishops speak for the Church as a whole."
He added that freedom of religious expression must not be limited to religious organizations but must also extend to religious individuals running secular companies.
"Institutional rights rest on the foundation of individual rights," he said.
John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, explained that while not all employees of the university are Catholic, they all freely agree during the hiring process "to respect and support" the university's Catholic mission.
He said that the mandate would require the university to contradict itself, denying through its actions what it teaches in its classrooms.
Garvey pointed to the analysis of Harvard University economics professor Greg Mankiw, who found that the cost of the additional coverage will ultimately be incorporated into the policy and "passed on to the purchaser."
He referenced a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, in which three senators supporting the mandate estimated that contraceptives cost a woman $600 dollars per year.
These costs will not simply disappear, Garvey explained, and even if they did, religious employers would still be forced to provide plans that covered the services they found immoral.
Garvey and Bishop Lori were joined at the hearing by ministers of various religious backgrounds and both men and women who serve as administrators at Catholic and Protestant colleges.
Belmont Abbey College – which has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the mandate – was among the groups represented at the hearing, as was the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which was involved in the recent Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case where the Supreme Court rejected the Obama administration's narrow definition of religion.
Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, also testified at the hearing, arguing that the Obama administration has exhibited a "complete misunderstanding of the nature of religion."
He explained that by carving out an initial religious exemption, "however narrow, the administration implicitly acknowledges that forcing employers to purchase these insurance policies may involve a violation of religious freedom."
However, the strict stipulations attached to the exemption assume that religious organizations serving those of other faiths "are no longer acting in a religious capacity," he said.
In this way, the Obama administration is posing a grave threat by "unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious," he explained.
— CNA/EWTN News
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