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Religion-Affiliated Institutions Try to Have It Both Ways With Your Taxes and Your Birth Control

When Catholic colleges and universities seek federal funding, they claim not to be controlled by religious orders. When it comes to contraception, though, it's a different story.
 
 
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This diary is cross-posted from  RH Reality Check; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the  original post.

The Obama administration is accepting  comments from the public until April 8 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 loath 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 andwhat 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. More than 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-1960s, 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 affilation, 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.