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By Leslie Fain
When the new Health and Human Services abortifacient mandate deadline passes in 2014, Belmont Abbey College will not be accepting or participating in anything contrary to the Catholic Christian faith, confirmed its president, William K. Thierfelder.
Belmont Abbey, a private Catholic Christian liberal arts college located in Belmont, N.C., became the first institution, in 2011, to sue the federal government for an exemption from the HHS mandate that requires institutions to cover contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures in its insurance for employees.
“We cannot go against our faith, and we are not going to do it,” said Thierfelder in an interview with WND. “We will never accept something that is antithetical to what we believe. I think all of us have to have the commitment the martyrs [had]. Not that we are going to be martyrs, but we have to have that kind of commitment. Sometimes the faith is bolstered by persecution.”
On June 28, the HHS issued its final rule on the health mandate. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Belmont Abbey College, among others, stated the final rule is unacceptable.
“Unfortunately the final rule announced today is the same old, same old,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for Becket, said at the time. “As we said when the proposed rule was issued, this doesn’t solve the religious conscience problem because it still makes our non-profit clients the gatekeepers to abortion and provides no protection to religious businesses.
“The easy way to resolve this would have been to exempt sincere religious employers completely, as the Constitution requires. Instead this issue will have to be decided in court,” stated Rassbach.
According to the organization, the final rule fails to fix the HHS employer mandate’s fundamental problems: non-profit religious employers are still dragooned into acting as gatekeepers to abortion; self-insured religious groups must hire administrators that pay for abortifacients and contraceptives; and religious business owners still have to provide abortion-inducing drugs or pay up to millions of dollars in fines.
The effective date of the rule had been set for Aug. 1, 2013, but Thursday’s decision moved the date to Jan. 1, 2014 for some nonprofit entities.
What happens when the deadline passes? Thierfelder is not optimistic.
“Based on what has happened previously, we believe it will be unconstitutional,” he said of the government’s next move once the deadline passes.
What happens to the institutions and organizations that are party to this suit when the mandate deadline passes depends on when each institution’s medical plan renews. At that point, the institution or organization likely will be ordered by the government to provide abortion and contraceptive services.
“Our plan renews January 2014,” said Thierfelder. “We have to comply, and we won’t.”
“We will not offer abortifacients and contraceptives ever, ever, ever,” Thierfelder said.
Thierfelder said at that time the college will be back in court, looking for a ruling or looking for an injunction.
Once the deadline passes, fines for institutions such as Belmont Abbey have been estimated to run around $2,000 per employee, per year. Thierfelder is quick to point out, though, that the government could raise that fee to any amount it wants, as the original document wording is so vague.
Although the arguments against abortifacients and contraceptives are important and ones he makes often, what is ultimately at stake in this legal battle is religious liberty, Thierfelder said.
“It’s like someone takes away your home, and after you fight back, [he] wants to negotiate whether you get to keep one of your flower pots,” said Thierfelder. “That’s just outrageous to me.”
In addition to Belmont Abbey, others that have brought legal actions include Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network and Ave Maria University. More than five dozen legal actions are pending.
The HHS mandate represents something unprecedented in the country’s history of religious freedom.
“We’re not aware of any other time in American history when the government has given religious believers such a stark choice between following their consciences and paying millions of dollars in fines,” said Adele Auxier Keim, legal counsel and one of the attorneys on Belmont’s case.
According to Keim, balance is the key. “If the government wants to put a burden on religious practice, they have to prove that it advances a compelling interest, and that it is the least restrictive means of advancing that interest,” she said.
“The government can’t meet that balancing test when it’s already exempted other organizations for secular reasons,” she said. “HHS has exempted health plans covering 87 million Americans for political reasons, in order to keep President Obama’s promise they could keep the health plan they already had.
“But, HHS has refused to exempt a single [for-profit] business from the mandate for religious reasons,” said Keim.
According to Thierfelder, one of the biggest challenges the college and other organizations fighting the HHS mandate face is getting people to focus on this daunting threat to religious liberty, in light of all the other big news stories capturing people’s attention.
Although there are many important stories out there, the HHS mandate threatens the religious freedom of all Americans, he said.
Thierfelder said whether one is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or affiliated with another religion, you should be concerned about the HHS mandate.
“If they can take our liberty away, they can take your liberty away,” he said.
The resolve of the other parties to this suit is strong as well, he added.
“I don’t see people backing down, and I hope they don’t. Hopefully, there will be more people willing to do [litigate this] if they have to. I hope it inspires other people.”
“The ability to worship God is vital to who we are as a people,” Thierfelder said. “I hope all of America will rally around this principle, and fight for it. This is not something that is negotiable, that we can compromise on.
“If this doesn’t change, there will be a lot of people persecuted,” he said.
Thierfelder said he believes the federal government is trying to change the meaning of “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship” in a very subtle way. In other words, you are free to worship however you wish at church or at home, but your religious beliefs should stay within those walls, and not have any impact on the culture at large.
“What if the federal government came back and said ‘It’s disturbing to me you are carrying around a Bible. You can only have it at home and in your church.’ That is unacceptable. What we are being told here is the same – same argument, different details.”
Belmont was founded in 1876 by Benedictine monks, at a time when there were only 700 Catholic Christians in the entire state of North Carolina. How did the school survive and flourish? According to Thierfelder, the Benedictine monks love scripture and hospitality, which are both so important to Southern culture. In addition, the monks “welcomed everyone as Christ,” he said.
Thierfelder said individuals concerned about the HHS mandate and the threat it presents to religious liberty, should contact their senators, congressmen, and the White House.
“What would happen if they received millions of calls every day?” he asked. “Invite other people to get involved. We need all hands on deck.”
No matter what happens with regard to the HHS mandate, Thierfelder said he is ultimately optimistic because he knows how the Gospel story ends.
Leslie Williams Fain, a University of Alabama graduate, is a freelance writer who lives in the South with her husband and three sons. She has written pieces on civil liberties, human rights and the family.