The EEOC recently issued a letter of determination to Belmont Abbey College, a Roman Catholic college in Belmont, North Carolina, after a number of its employees filed a sexual discrimination complaint when the College elected to revise its health care plan by eliminating contraceptives and other population control measures from its health care plan, finding that Belmont Abbey College had engaged in discriminatory practices by implementing this change in its health care plan. The college is a private institution, although the materials I’ve read indicate that it did accept public funds. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic church has condemned the use of contraceptives, abortion and other population control measures since its inception, so the question then becomes to what extent, if any, can the United States government force a private employer to conform with governmental beliefs even where those beliefs are diametrically opposed to the fundamental religious beliefs held by the private employer? Under what circumstances can the federal government disregard the fundamental tenets of separation of church and state and dictate to a Roman Catholic institution that it much condone, endorse and in fact pay for its employees to have access to health care options that are the antithesis of the fundamental teachings of the Church? More importantly, can the United States government force private religious institutions to abandon these fundamental religious principles and adopt those social policies held by the government simply because an institution for higher learning happened to accept governmental funds? If so, where is the line drawn? If a Roman Catholic Church accepts FEMA money to repair its facilities after a catastrophic event, does it necessarily give up its sovereignty simply because it accepted government assistance? If so, does this mean that an individual would, too, under similar circumstances?
The effect of the Belmont Abbey College determination could have potential catastrophic effects on the separation between religious freedom and state regulation, especially now, when health care reform has taken center stage. Should the public option force private insurance out of business, which legislators suggest would never happen (we’ll see), will the government be able to force health care policies on individuals in violation of religious freedom? But, the bigger and more practical issue is whether the government can allocate tax dollars to pay for plans that violate religious freedom? Can the government force you to pay for another person’s abortion? In short, yes.
Quite simply, individuals do not have control over how tax dollars are spent. While anyone has the ability to contact his or her legislator and try to make a change in governmental policy, the fact is that individual citizens have no control over how tax dollars are spent. See English v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, T.C. Memo. 1986-409, 1986 WL 21620 (U.S.Tax Ct. 1986). In English, the plaintiff argued that he could validly withhold tax payments when he disagrees with the manner in which the government is spending tax dollars. The Tax Court held that, regardless of the sincerity of his beliefs, the plaintiff’s arguments were totally without merit.
While it comes as no surprise that individuals or private companies have no say so when it comes to telling the government how to spend tax dollars, the question then becomes whether the inverse would be true as well. If tax payers cannot dictate how the government spends tax payer dollars, can the government control personal liberties when tax payers take government dollars?
The real answer is that the government can do anything it deems just and proper as long as it can identify some “public purpose” for implementing its plan. See Maready v. City of Winston-Salem, 467 S.E.2d 615 (NC 1996). In Maready, a tax payer challenged a municipality’s ability to grant economic development incentives to private businesses, arguing that the statute permitting such expenditures was unconstitutional because it was impermissibly vague and violated the public purpose clause of the North Carolina Constitution. Unbelievably, the lower court held that the statute was in fact unconstitutional; however, the North Carolina Supreme Court later “corrected” this seemingly just result, finding that the case specific “public purpose” standard was not unconstitutionally vague, and holding that governmental entities could use tax payer monies to subsidize or entice private businesses by offering economic development incentives. The dissent poignantly contemplated that,
If it is an acceptable public purpose to spend tax dollars specifically for relocation expenses to benefit the spouses of corporate executives moving to the community in finding new jobs or for parking decks that benefit only the employees of the favored company, then what can a government not do if the end result will entice a company to produce new jobs and raise the tax base? If a potential corporate entity is considering a move to Winston-Salem but will only come if country club memberships are provided for its executives, do we sanction the use of tax revenue to facilitate the move? I would hope not, but under the holding of the majority opinion, I see no grounds for challenging such an expenditure provided that, as a result of such a grant, the company promises to create new jobs, and an increased tax base is projected.
Thus, it seems that while the individual citizens are not permitted to dictate how their tax dollars are spent, the inverse effect of the government’s ability to control individual liberties by loaning taxpayers the very dollars they have paid is unquestionable. As a result, taxpayers such as Belmont Abbey College and other Roman Catholic tax payers, like the rest of us, will have to shelf their constitutional freedoms, at least in part, in favor of what this year’s government deems to be the greater good regardless of their religious beliefs or any other constitutional concerns they may have.