Sunday, February 24, 2008

Belmont Abbey College Faculty Challenge Exclusion of Contraception from the Health Care Policy

Update 2/25. We have heard that, contrary to the media report cited herein, the faculty and their counsel are not planning to challenge the college's contraception policy under Title IX. Rather, they have filed a complaint with the EEOC under Title VII, and they are challenging the school's policy under state law that requires insurers that offer prescription drug coverage to include coverage for contraceptives -- a law that, like Title IX, makes an exception for religious institutions.

Faculty at Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine college in North Carolina, are considering whether to file a lawsuit to challenge the College's decision to exclude coverage for contraception from the health care plan offered to its faculty. They argue that the exclusion of contraception is sex discrimination in violation of Title IX.

Should the faculty file suit, their lawyers at the National Women's Law Center will have to contend with the religious exemption from Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)(3), which provides that the statute “shall not apply to an educational institution which is controlled by a religious organization if the application of this subsection would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.” Belmont Abbey College, of course, insists that contraception is inconsistent with its religious tenants. But interestingly, according to NWLC, the College's articles of incorporation do not stress an overtly religious purpose. And what's more, the College has in the past successfully litigated its eligibility for state scholarship funding reserved for secular institutions. There are no judicial decisions interpreting Title IX's religious exemption, so it's unknown how much weight a court would give to evidence that seemingly contravenes the College's stated position on its religious tenets.

The contraception question itself is also interesting. The College could defend that the health care policy withholds contraception from both male and female faculty and thus is not discriminatory. (Of course, this argument would fail if the policy covered, say, vasectomies, but not birth control pills.) The Eighth Circuit recently endorsed this position in a case construing Title VII, the statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex (among other characteristics) by private employers. Union Pacific, 479 F.3d 936 (8th Cir. 2007). The faculty would have to contend that lack of access to contraception disproportionately impacts women, or argue that access to contraception is required under Title IX's express prohibition of discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, or make the case that the health care policy's exclusion of contraception results in women receiving fewer health benefits on the whole.