It’s the small Catholic college in North Carolina vs. the Obama administration. The outcome will decide the fate of religious liberty in this country.
When it was announced last year that the Obama administration intended to force religious institutions to pay for contraceptive drugs –including those that would cause abortions there were letters sent by many of the leading Catholic organizations, press statements delivered, and meetings with the Obama administration held asking for a wider religious exemption.
But it wasn’t the Catholic Health Association which had endorsed Obamacare, not Catholic Charities, not Notre Dame which had honored the President in order to further dialogue, or even mushy tsk-tsks from Sister Keehan that did anything to help.
No. It was the tiny Catholic school with the President who said he’d rather close the school down than comply with the administration’s wishes on contraception and abortifacients.
But College President Bill Thierfelder said he doesn’t believe it will come to that. And there’s reason to believe he’s right because Belmont Abbey has partnered with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a small law firm committed to defending religious liberty.
You might remember the name because just week they won a case against the powerful Obama administration before the Supreme Court. 9-0. A unanimous ruling that prevented the White House from deciding who religious institutions could hire and fire.
But undeterred, the Obama administration, as we know, is back to strangling religious liberties in this country this week.
And now the lawsuit filed against the Obama administration by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on behalf of Belmont Abbey College may just decide all.
“This is the last avenue of relief,” said Hannah Smith, Senior Legal Counsel for The Becket Fund. “There’s a lot riding on these lawsuits.”
For years, President Obama has talked about the importance of “conscience rights.” While being honored by the University of Notre Dame, Obama pledged to “draft a sensible conscience clause.” And even just last month, Archbishop Timothy Dolan emerged from a meeting with President Obama, saying he “found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community that were worried about an intrusion into religious liberty.”
So much for that.
After all the promises Obama made, after all the pleas with the administration from religious institutions across the country, and the meetings with bishops, the administration simply ran roughshod over the concerns of Christian organizations.
The administration’s one seeming concession was to merely delay the effective date of the rule by one year for religious institutions. Sebelius wrote that, “This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule.”
“How generous of you Secretary Sebelius,” said Hannah Smith. “So we can violate our religious beliefs and comply with your coercive government mandate a year from now?”
Smith said she believed the one year extension was simply a “shameless” political decision to kick the can down the road until after the election to avoid negative p.r. before the election.
Ron Benton, Assistant Vice President of Administrative Services at Colorado Christian University which filed a similar suit a month after Belmont Abbey’s, said Sebelius’ delaying the implementation of the rule so that institutions could figure out a way to “adapt” is “pure ignorance.”
“Deeply held religious beliefs don’t change in a year,” he said.” I don’t think the Obama administration realizes the scope of the push back they’re going to see from institutions that hold their beliefs deeply.”
Benton said he believes Belmont Abbey and Colorado Christian won’t be alone in their lawsuit for long. He said he believes other Catholic and Christian colleges and institutions may join in the lawsuit or file friends of the court briefs in the near future.
Mark L. Rienzi, an assistant professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, who is part of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said recently, “Sebelius’s war is her own effort to use a government agency to force conformity — everyone has to jump on the contraception/abortion bandwagon or face the financial consequences.”
Smith said she’s hopeful the lawsuits will succeed because just last week the Supreme Court unanimously decided against the Obama administration. “The administration has seen the writing on the wall. They know that this mandate cannot survive constitutional scrutiny any more than their ‘extreme’ position in Hosanna-Tabor did,” said Smith. ”So the administration is trying to delay the inevitable judgment day. We’re quite confident the court will see this as an unconstitutional burden.”
The suit by Belmont Abbey College was filed first in November and it’s expected that the government would respond by the end of January. Colorado Christian College’s suit was filed a month later so a response is expected from the administration by the end of February.
We’ll keep you updated on this all important battle.
Belmont Abbey College is included by The Cardinal Newman Society in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College for its strong Catholic identity.
National Review has an excellent interview with the above Ms. Smith (a lawyer for the Becket Fund) on this subject that can be found here.