Self-Certification and the Contraceptive Coverage Rule: What Does It Mean for an Institution to “Hold Itself Out as Religious?”
The Obama administration is accepting comments from the public until April 8th on the Notice of Proposed Rule-Making for the birth control benefit or contraceptive coverage rule. The proposed rule amends the exemption for houses of worship and their affiliates and adds an accommodation for other non-exempt non-profits opposed to birth control.
The accommodation requires that insurance companies offer separate contraceptive coverage directly to the employees of objecting organizations at no additional cost. To take advantage of the accommodation, an organization need only self-certify to its health insurer or plan administrator that it is a non-profit opposed to some of the required contraceptive services and that it “hold[s] itself out as a religious organization.”
It is not enough for an institution seeking special treatment to simply assert that it holds itself out as religious. I expect the Obama administration is loathe to define what it means to be a religious organization or police whether an institution is in fact holding itself out as such, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the institution should have to make a statement describing how it holds itself out as religious and what that religiousness entails. This statement should be made easily available to the public and organizations should have give to notice of it to those with whom it seeks to contract, such as employees, students, patients, and funders.
This is necessary due to a pattern of religiously-affiliated institutions characterizing themselves one way when recruiting or seeking public funding and another when demanding to be exempt from laws that govern secular institutions. The trend in First Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence has permitted increasing public funding for religious organizations. This means we need whatever protections the free market can provide individuals from the imposition of religion by institutions active in the public sphere. We can only avoid involvement with institutions that will discriminate on the basis of religious control if we know which institutions those are.
To understand some particularly flagrant examples of religiously-affiliated institutions trying to have it both ways, we turn to a bit of state constitutional law. Over 37 state constitutions contain explicit prohibitions on the use of public money for religious institutions or instruction. New York is among them and its Constitution prohibits public funding of any educational institution “wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination.”
In the mid-60s many private universities throughout the country were in dire financial straits. New York sought to rescue its private universities with taxpayer funding through a program known as “Bundy aid.” However, giving public funds to religiously-controlled universities was clearly unconstitutional. So religious universities, particularly Catholic ones, underwent re-organizations to separate themselves from the control of their founding religious orders and other church authorities and endeavored to become more suitable places for people of any or no faith to work and study. By becoming non-sectarian, while maintaining only a religious affiliation, they qualified for public funding. The motivation behind secularization was not exclusively financial, but part of a larger attempt by Catholic universities to strengthen their academic and intellectual legitimacy.
By accepting funds each year, a New York college makes a representation to the state that it is an independent institution free from religious control. Despite this, a number of universities receiving Bundy aid, have asserted that they are church-controlled in order to be free from various generally applicable laws.
In 2010, adjunct professors at Manhattan College sought to unionize. To block them, Manhattan College claimed it was not subject to the jurisdiction of the National Labor Review Board because it is “church-operated.” Among the evidence on which the NLRB board relied in rejecting the claim Manhattan College holds itself out as a religious institution was the fact that Manhattan College deliberately eliminated church control to get Bundy aid and continues to claims to be non-sectarian by accepting it.
In 2009, St. John’s University argued it was exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is “controlled by a religious organization.” Prior to that, St. John’s successfully argued it was eligible for an exemption from New York’s Human Rights Law for the same reason. In agreeing that St. John’s is controlled by a religious organization, the Court did not take notice of the fact that St. John’s represents to the state that it is not controlled, even in part, by a religious organization in order to get taxpayer funding each year.
Multiple universities that receive Bundy aid have health policies that are controlled by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops through the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The Directives are 43 pages long and as detailed as a statute. These schools tend to be less than forthcoming as to how the Directives are implemented in school policy, and some fail to give notice that the Directives control at all.
For a further example of conflicting self-characterizations, we now turn to the permissibility of funding under the federal Constitution. In 2000, the University of Notre Dame received a $500,000 federal grant that funded a program that included training teachers to work in parochial schools. Taxpayers sued the federal government, alleging the grant violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. Notre Dame intervened in the case as a defendant to defend its interest in the funds. Inherent to Notre Dame’s argument that the funding did not violate the First Amendment, is the fact that Notre Dame engages in many secular activities. In fact, just by applying for the grant, for which the “[u]se of funds for religion” was explicitly prohibited, Notre Dame represented to the government that despite its religious affiliation, not everything it does is an exercise of religion.