As the controversy over whether religious employers should provide insurance covering birth control has raged through Congress, the Republican primaries and the media, one group has remained publicly silent: the employees themselves.
At a Jesuit institution in Ohio, though, some members of the faculty and staff have joined the debate, signing a letter urging the university’s president to accept the Obama administration’s compromise on contraception coverage and asking him to push Roman Catholic bishops to do the same.
Under President Obama’s health care overhaul, employer-sponsored insurance plans would be required to cover birth control for women at no charge due to a new rule that considers contraception preventive care. Catholic and some evangelical colleges objected strongly to the rule, arguing that it would require them to violate their beliefs. A proposed compromise -- that insurers, not employers, would pay for the birth control coverage -- has done little to quell the outrage.
When the compromise was announced Feb. 10, many college groups said they were heartened that the Obama administration listened to their concerns. But since then, more colleges have filed suit over the requirement, and the controversy appears far from over.
Forty-seven faculty and staff members at John Carroll University, including professors, librarians and at least two members of the administration, signed a letter to the Jesuit college’s president, the Rev. Robert Niehoff.
“We ... are committed to freedom of conscience and religious liberty,” the faculty wrote, adding that Catholic bishops have the right to “proclaim Catholic teaching vigorously and loudly.”
“However, we also believe that access to contraception is central to the health and well-being of women and children.”
The letter acknowledges that the faculty members who sign might disagree over whether the religious accommodation was necessary at all. “We are all troubled that the bishops have chosen a path of continued confrontation,” they wrote, questioning the bishop’s motives for rejecting the compromise.
“We believe the faculty and the administration of John Carroll University need to take a stand in the face of the bishops’ unwillingness to accept the compromise offered by the Obama administration,” the letter concludes. “We thus ask that, along with the presidents of other Catholic and Jesuit universities, you urge the bishops to avoid the inflammatory rhetoric they have been using to attack the administration's policy. We ask you to stand up to those who would play politics with women’s health.”
John Carroll has more than 200 faculty members, and the professors who wrote the letter sent it to about 160 of them, said Paul Lauritzen, a professor of theology and religious studies who led the effort. Distribution was limited because the college does not have an e-mail list for all faculty, so the letter’s three primary co-signers -- Lauritzen and two other professors -- had to find e-mail addresses individually. Three professors declined to sign, and more than 100 did not respond, he said.
“People were commenting on it from across the political spectrum, but there weren’t really any faculty voices in the conversation,” Lauritzen said. “We thought it would be important to hear from those who would be directly affected by the policy, however it gets implemented.”
John Carroll’s insurance does not currently cover contraception, although it did in the past, Lauritzen said.
Of the three primary co-signers, only one is Catholic: Jim Lissemore, the chair of the biology department, Lauritzen said. Some of the faculty members who signed are Catholic, and the signers included the chair of the university’s theology and religious studies department. Two associate vice presidents for academic affairs also signed the letter.
Many of the signers, including both Catholics and non-Catholics, were concerned about the policy’s possible impact on non-Catholic faculty and staff, Lauritzen said. Those faculty have made no moral commitment to church teachings but would still be denied birth control coverage.
Administrators at John Carroll did not return calls or e-mail from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment, but Lauritzen said that Niehoff had replied to the letter and has said that dialogue is ongoing between Catholic college associations and the Catholic bishops.
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities has been more measured in its response to the rules than some other Catholic organizations, although the association remains concerned about student health plans and self-insured colleges. No Jesuit colleges have sued the administration over the requirement, and some already provide contraception in their employee health plans.
“We didn’t see this in any way as confrontational locally or on campus,” Lauritzen said. “It’s useful for the president to know where the faculty stood on this.... It wasn’t an attempt to ambush him in any way."