In an email, Paul J. Browne, the university’s vice president of communications, insisted that Notre Dame had not flip-flopped. After the Trump administration’s October announcement, “we believed that insurance companies would discontinue no-cost coverage for contraceptives for employees at the end of the year,” he said, and “since then, we learned that they would continue such coverage.” The real problem was not with third-party insurers, he said. The problem was the government. “In the previous administration, the federal government took it upon itself to determine which institutions were sufficiently Catholic (parishes, for example) and which were not (universities),” he wrote. “That was unacceptable.”
Jenkins restated this objection to government interference in his annual address to the faculty senate on Tuesday night. The birth-control mandate “was the result not of legislative process but administrative decree,” he said. If religious organizations can’t take exceptions to federal policies, he said, “then they have lost any meaningful religious freedom in the face of the imposition of governmental power.”
Religious-freedom advocates, however, saw the school’s stance as a reversal. “Notre Dame spent five years suing the federal government for the right to provide moral health insurance,” wrote Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, on Twitter. “They now have that right. And they’re choosing not to exercise it. They’re choosing to provide immoral health insurance. Shameful. Scandalous.” McGraw, the Wheaton professor, also observed that the university’s decision may give judges license to doubt the sincerity of other religious groups’ objections.
But the bigger concern, McGraw said, is cultural. “Institutions, when they make these kinds of religious-liberty claims, are almost always pushing back against popular sentiment,” he said. As religious bodies push back against cultural norms, particularly around sex and sexuality, Notre Dame’s lack of steadfastness makes it “much more difficult … to be willing to take the cultural pressure.”
Notre Dame claims it made its decision out of respect for the pluralism of its community, but it’s not clear how seriously administration officials engaged with concerns about the university’s birth-control policy. In general, there’s not much of a protest culture on campus, said Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a professor of philosophy and biological sciences, because “most students are afraid of sabotaging their recommendations or careers.” Those who do protest—especially on controversial issues like this—might be subject to disciplinary action, raising free-speech concerns, said Gretchen Reydams-Schils, a professor in the program of liberal studies.
The faculty has also been divided—and, in some cases, vocally opposed to Notre Dame’s actions. “None of the stories [have] captured just how much protest, complaint, and outrage was generated by faculty, students, and alums over that decision,” wrote Sarah McKibben, an associate professor of Irish language and literature, in an email. “Many of us have been very upset about this for a long time. Believe me, NO ONE tells you that you’ll be subject to conservative Catholic doctrine for your health care when you are being wooed for a job here.”