Notre Dame Healthcare and 'Sincere Religious Belief'

The University of Notre Dame recently filed a notice of appeal in response to the dismissal of its lawsuit over the Obama administration's contraceptive coverage rule. Notre Dame's case hinges on the claim that they have a "sincere religious belief" that is substantially burdened by the proposed regulation. Despite protestations to the contrary from University President Fr. Jenkins and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it remains unclear just how sincere Notre Dame is.

In its legal complaint, the University claims that it is "unapologetically committed to the moral principles and ethics of the Catholic Church," but the truth is that it has chosen to live out its Catholic mission selectively, and in a way that exacerbates existing equity issues on campus. Notre Dame is failing to effect the kind of equality that is absolutely central to Catholic moral teaching. This is a moral failing. Truly living out our Catholic mission requires we address this inequality, not attempt to legally defend our "right" to it on religious grounds.

As I've noted elsewhere, the purported burden on Notre Dame's freedom of religion is not that of being required to cover contraception, but being required to cover it without maintaining the authority to determine whether its use is morally justified. Yet, the University does not assert that authority over men's medical decisions. Notre Dame covers medications that treat erectile dysfunction without requiring the insured provide evidence they are married -- indeed, the insured are not even required to provide evidence of a medical need. These policies are discriminatory. Women's sexual lives and medical decisions are scrutinized, in ways that men's are not, as a matter of University policy.

Moreover, while Notre Dame claims willingness to provide contraceptives to those women who require it for non-contraceptive medical reasons, a number of Notre Dame women have reported to me that this is not so in practice. Unsurprising, given what we already know about similar circumstances at Georgetown and Fordham, but unacceptable nonetheless.

This failure to act consistently with broadly accepted Catholic principles (unlike the teaching on contraception itself, which has been broadly rejected by the Catholic laity) is not merely a matter of discrimination in prescription coverage, though that is significant. The University fails to provide basic resources to the very families that are the likely (and supposedly welcome) result of University policy.

University sponsored healthcare, for example, is wholly unaffordable for graduate student families. Insuring a spouse and two children on Notre Dame's plan costs roughly $8,400 annually (this is in addition to the cost of a student's own plan); that is equal to nearly half of a Notre Dame Ph.D. student's annual stipend before taxes and before any medical expenses have actually been incurred. All of the graduate student parents I know, who are able to do so, insure their dependents through the state because they cannot afford Notre Dame's premiums. But worse still, many (if not all) international student's dependents go without health insurance entirely, as they do not qualify for state aid as non-citizens and they cannot afford the University's plan.

As colleagues and I were circulating a petition against the University's suit, several female graduate students contacted me to say that they are seriously worried that they will not be able to finish their degrees because of the unique difficulties of being a graduate student mother at Notre Dame. Some have told me that they could not in good conscience recommend that a woman attend Notre Dame if she is considering starting a family when she has other, more family-friendly, options. This is beyond disconcerting. The lawsuit adds insult to injury.

In the words of the Bishops themselves, "Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land." How, then, has Notre Dame's "unapologetic commitment" to the ethics of the Catholic Church been put into practice? The short answer: when it comes to the economic decisions surrounding our healthcare, it hasn't yet.