A new cause celebre is brewing for the religious right: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued a determination letter to Belmont Abbey, a Catholic college in North Carolina, saying that it discriminated against female faculty by excluding coverage for prescription contraceptives in its health insurance plan. The EEOC also found that the college illegally retaliated against faculty members who filed a complaint with the EEOC by publicly identifying them.

According to Marcia McCormick at the Workplace Prof Blog, courts are split on whether exclusion of prescription contraception coverage violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, part of the federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination in employment. But McCormick noted, "In my view, this is sex discrimination. Prescription contraception is only available for women, and is one of very few ways that women themselves can control when and whether to have children. And having children has a huge impact on a woman's working life, so that female employees are in a position different from female dependents vis a vis work for this employer." Belmont Abbey claims it removed coverage for contraception from its insurance plan because it violates church teaching.

Under EEOC rules, the parties will now try to work out an agreement through a process called conciliation. If that fails, the EEOC can sue the college or issue the faculty members who filed the charge a right to sue letter to bring their own case against the college in federal court.

In any case, the religious right is rallying to the college's defense, and -- surprise! -- tying it to health-care reform. A press release from the anti-contraception American Life League links the EEOC ruling to a plan by the Obama administration to violate religious freedom, saying, "Not only are Catholic schools across the country running to the aid of Belmont, many are gearing up for First Amendment fights of their own in light of the Obama health care 'reform' plan."

Although it is framed as a Catholic issue, the religious right as a whole is gearing up for a fight. Deacon Keith Fournier, of Catholic Online, writes:

The College’s necessary stand against the encroachment of the Federal Government on Religious Freedom is being recognized by Christians, other people of faith and many people of good will around the world, as both an ominous sign and a call to heroic witness.

Fournier adds that he has attended the first steering committee meeting of the Freedom Federation, a new coalition of religious right leaders who are trying to distance themselves from the religious right label, but are nonetheless pushing the religious right agenda by opposing health-care reform, gay marriage, and abortion. "Belmont Abbey College has a set of new supporters, committed to prayer and willing to help," Fournier went on. "The leaders of other Christian communities understand what is at stake."

--Sarah Posner

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