What we can learn from Notre Dame and the contraceptives coverage discussion

What we can learn from Notre Dame and the contraceptives coverage discussion

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

Last week, the University of Notre Dame was at the center of public discourse. Here is an account of what happened, in brief. On Tuesday, November 7th,  the private Catholic university informed its employees via email that those enrolled in the health care plan will continue to be eligible to receive contraceptive coverage free of charge. Notre Dame’s human resources office noted in the email that Meritain Health/OptumRx had informed the university that they did not plan to discontinue such coverage. The change came as a surprise to many in the Notre Dame community because, just a week prior, employees had been given notice that the separate health coverage plan for contraceptive care would cease to be available to employees after December 31.

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne publicly released this statement:

“After the US Health and Human Services announcement on Oct. 6, we believed that insurance companies would discontinue no cost coverage for contraceptives for employees at the end of the year. Since then, we have been informed that Meritain Health/OptumRx will continue such coverage indefinitely. Notre Dame, as a Catholic institution, follows Catholic teaching about the use of contraceptives and engaged in the recent lawsuit to protect its freedom to act in accord with its principles. Recognizing, however, the plurality of religious and other convictions among its employees, it will not interfere with the provision of contraceptives that will be administered and funded independently of the University.”

A range of opinion pieces have emerged over the past week on the topic of Notre Dame’s announcement that it would continue to allow a separate health care provider to still provide access to no-cost contraception for their employees.  Rather than add another voice to the plurality of views in the public square, let’s look at the Notre Dame case through the holistic framework of the “Three P’s”: the interplay of policy, practice and public perception. This framework is ideal for faith-based organizations to better understand their religious freedom. After briefly providing some historical context for the Notre Dame case, we will examine it through the framework of the Three P’s to better grasp how faith-based organizations can use the Notre Dame case as a learning opportunity.

The Trump Administration and Religious Freedom Protections

The impetus for Notre Dame’s initial announcement of ceased contraceptive coverage is closely linked to the Trump administration’s announcement of new religious freedom protections. In October, the Administration announced it would provide an exemption to all employers who claimed religious or moral objections to the HHS Contraceptives Mandate. In practice, this meant that religious universities, hospitals, social services agencies and other organizations could now elect a complete exemption from providing their employees with access to free contraceptive coverage.

In the years leading up to the Trump administration’s announcement of regulatory relief from the Contraceptives Mandate, Notre Dame had joined other faith-based organizations in suing the federal government when various iterations of the HHS Contraceptives Mandate of the Affordable Care Act failed to provide the Catholic institution of higher education the freedom it claimed it needed to not adopt institutional policies that would make it complicit in providing contraceptives to its employees and students.  Some believe, as Emma Green noted in the Atlantic: “After a half decade of litigation and debate, ultimately leading to a victory for Notre Dame’s cause, the university has voluntarily chosen to embrace a status quo that seems to undermine its original legal position and interpretation of Catholic doctrine.” Still others point out that Notre Dame’s position is entirely consistent with its Catholic identity in that they don’t have to sign a new waiver and the third party provider can work directly with students and employees. This allows Notre Dame to effectively accommodate those in its community who disagree with Catholic teaching on contraception–without being complicit in providing it.

Many religious freedom advocates, journalists, thought leaders, academics, and interested citizens are talking about whether Notre Dame should have shifted from its original announcement terminating birth control coverage for its employees and students. We are going to start a different conversation, one centered not in what the right action for Notre Dame was, but what other faith-based organizations can learn as they navigate the complex public policy and public opinion context in which they practice their institutional religious identity.

Case Study: Notre Dame through the “Three P’s” Framework

How can faith-based organizations, faced with internal and external pressures to both serve their (often religiously diverse) communities and honor to God, live out their sacred missions in every area of their organizational lives?  In what follows, we will consider Notre Dame as a case study in the important considerations a faith-based organization must make with attempting to advance its sacred beliefs and identity in every expression of its institutional DNA: in how it understands and engages public policy, in how it shapes organizational practices, and in how it responds to public perception.

How Notre Dame Engages with Public Policy

Faith-based organizations closely following the  Notre Dame case should consider a few themes and questions that have emerged as a result of the university’s public policy engagement:

  1. Regardless of whether your faith-based organization would take the same stances of Notre Dame on the HHS Contraceptives Mandate, it is clear that Notre Dame invested in the human and financial resources to understand the content and import of these public policy developments, and how these government policies would impact Notre Dame’s ability to live out its faith.  How can your faith-based organization stay aware of public policy developments, on the local, state and federal level, that may impact its freedom to exercise its faith?
  2. Beyond understanding the government policies, Notre Dame took legal action and made public comments. How can your faith-based organization thoughtfully discern circumstances under which public action might be a  necessary response to public policy developments?

How Notre Dame Shapes its Organizational Practices

Faith-based organizations closely following this situation with Notre Dame should consider a few themes and questions that have emerged as a result of Notre Dame’s evolving institutional practices with respect to contraceptive coverage:

  1. Regardless of whether you believe Notre Dame should have done with respect to its institutional policies on contraceptive coverage, it is clear that Notre Dame’s Catholic beliefs played a role in shaping its practices. The complex challenges that have emerged are, at least in part, the result of a faith-based organization trying to honor various aspects of its animating, sacred values (human conduct honoring to God, on the one hand, and missionally-minded religious inclusivity within the Notre Dame community, on the other hand).  How can your faith-based organization carefully articulate the core sacred values that emanate from your religious mission? Are there certain values within your religious organization that would appear, especially to an outsider, to be in contradiction of each other?  How can you anticipate this and work toward developing organizational documents, policies and culture that carefully navigate how to hold together complex religious beliefs?  How can your organization anticipate how to prioritize seemingly competing values (honor God but serve everyone, for example)?
  2. In shifting its organizational practices with respect to contraceptive coverage, it is still unclear whether Notre Dame may have been influenced by factors beyond how to articulate and live out their religious beliefs in this area. How can your faith-based organization carefully discern how public policy engagement or public perception might influence your organization to adopt certain practices? At the heart of these inquiries should be the question:  How does adopting certain organizational practices help my organization to more fully, consistently and transparently embody its faith-based mission in the public square? If my organization were to face legal or reputational challenges to a faith-shaped institutional practice, would we consider changing that practice, or is the practice an essential element of how we live out our organizational faith?

How Notre Dame Responds to its Public Perception

Faith-based organizations closely following this situation with Notre Dame should consider a few themes and questions that have emerged as a result of Notre Dame’s public perception with respect to contraceptive coverage:

  1. Regardless of what you believe Notre Dame should have done with respect to how it responded to the perceptions of polarized factions within its community, it is clear that all faith-based organizations operate in an environment that is likely to be highly suspicious of its organizational practices and approach to public engagement. How can your faith-based organization carefully articulate the core sacred values that emanate from your religious mission? What institutional safeguards can your faith-based organization put in place to proactively avoid a situation or appearance that your organization is being driven by public perception pressures, rather than by a conviction to consistently advance your faith-shaped values?
  2. In considering the answers to these questions, remember you are not alone. One way your faith-based organization can increase its impact, especially with limited resources, is to turn to groups like the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance for expertise, guidance and community in advancing your religious mission through public policy engagement, organizational practice strategic public communications that reflect your religious identity and sacred precepts.

Faith-based organizations are keen to follow the media coverage of cases like Notre Dame’s – and for good reason: it could have been them.

But using the Three P’s framework encourages faith-based organizations to think through how they are to live out their religious identities both internally, and public-facing perception. The next time a media firestorm hits, faith-based organizations should consider using this framework to create a plan that helps the organization think critically about its role in the public square, without compromising its religious identity.