Interview: The legal case against the contraceptives mandate
William Thierfelder is president of Belmont Abbey College, a private Catholic college in North Carolina. In November, the college joined with the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty to file the first lawsuit against the health reform law’s mandated coverage of contraceptives, a suit that two additional parties have since joined.
Thierfelder will testify at tomorrow’s congressional hearing on whether the contraceptives provision has violated religious institutions’ conscience rights. We spoke this afternoon about the hearing, his university’s pending lawsuit, and why last week’s accommodations from the White House didn’t win him over. What follows is a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Kliff: You’ll be testifying Thursday in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the health reform law’s mandated coverage of contraceptives, and whether that violates some faith-based institutions’ conscience rights. What’s the point you’ll try to make there?
William Thierfelder: It’s an opportunity to make clear what the issues are for us. What I hope to convey tomorrow is that as much as we’re focused on contraception, that’s just a detail in a fundamental problem, which is about religious liberty. This is about First Amendment rights, rights of conscience. And I think that’s getting a bit lost. This is about religious freedoms that I didn’t see protected in the president’s announcement last week.
SK: The accommodations that the president rolled out last week would have insurers cover contraceptives rather than a faith-based employer who objects. Why doesn’t that arrangement work for you and your college?
WT: My concern about this is it’s really just shifting things around, like an accounting principle. Now the insurance companies are supposed to cover something for free, which could come out of our premiums. Right now we have a policy that doesn’t include contraceptives. In the future, we would not be able to do that.
What’s the atmosphere like on your campus? You all have obviously taken a very strong stance against this provision.
There’s an atmosphere of some disbelief. I’ve had people call me from other parts of the country, people who are in favor of abortion, who have said it isn’t right. People are seeing it as a religious liberty issue. And it just seems common sense [not to mandate contraceptives coverage].
I think this is a very important moment for us. It’s a precedent-setting time were in. ... We’re not trying to tell anybody else how to live their lives. I, personally, I would hope people don’t seek abortions, but we’re not saying that. We’re being asked to violate our religious beliefs in our Catholic home.
Tell me a bit more about your lawsuit. You filed the challenge months before this provision was enacted. Why?
We’ve had to deal with this in the past, the whole issue with providing contraceptives, because of the North Carolina state law, which had an exemption. When we first saw this, it was very much at the front of our mind. When this came about, Abbot Placid Solari [chancellor of Belmont Abbey College] and I sat down. And he said to me, we should sue them rather than waiting until we’re in violation and now one of 10,000 institutions running around trying to do something. This was being pro-active.
What is the legal argument that you make in your challenge?
It’s about First Amendment rights and religious liberty. This is a violation of religious liberty. The Beckett Fund has been an extraordinary champion on these issues.
Let’s say we get to a point where your lawsuit isn’t successful and Congress doesn’t overturn this provision. What will you do then? Will Belmont Abbey comply with the mandate, drop insurance coverage or seek another option?
We have to see what does come about. We want to take the least hurtful option for our employees and students. We obviously want to provide insurance coverage to our employees. It would be incredibly unfortunate if that wasn’t an alternative. This principle is so strong with us, it’s not really a compromising sort of thing. We can’t give in on this. So I don’t really know what happens.