Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Catholic college faces lawsuit over contraceptives

The president of a small Catholic college said Friday he would rather close the school's doors than violate the church's teachings on contraception should the college lose the latest battle involving health-insurance laws and religious freedom. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has determined that Belmont Abbey College violated discrimination laws because the school's employee health insurance plan does not cover contraception, according to a letter the EEOC sent to the school. "I hope it would never get this far," college President William K. Thierfelder told The Washington Times, "but if it came down to it we would close the college before we ever provided that."

The factual conclusion reached by the EEOC could be a precursor to the commission filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against the college. "By denying prescription contraceptive drugs, [the college] is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives," the EEOC wrote in a letter to the North Carolina college. "By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women."

Mr. Thierfelder disputed that conclusion in a letter posted on the college's Web site: "Belmont Abbey College rejects the notion that by following the moral teachings of the Catholic Church we are discriminating against anyone. "We are simply and honestly exercising the freedom of religion that is protected by the Constitution," he wrote.

In the highest profile case involving contraception coverage and Catholic institutions, California forced Catholic Charities to cover contraception as part of its employee health-insurance plan. The California Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that Catholic Charities was not a religious organization under state law, and therefore was required to provide contraception coverage under state law.

The EEOC investigation into Belmont Abbey stems from changes the college made to its employee health-insurance plan nearly two years ago. The changes came after the school discovered its plan had inadvertently been covering abortions, prescription contraception and elective sterilization procedures. Mr. Thierfelder wrote at the time that "it is the clear, consistent, incontrovertible, public, official and authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that abortion, contraception and voluntary sterilization are actions which are intrinsically wrong and should not be undertaken because of their very nature." The college, which has about 1,500 students, no longer covers contraceptive services as part of its employee health coverage.

"As a Roman Catholic institution, Belmont Abbey College is not able to and will not offer nor subsidize medical services that contradict the clear teaching of the Catholic Church," Mr. Thierfelder wrote in a letter explaining the changes. In response, eight current and former faculty members - six men and two women, according to Mr. Thierfelder - filed a complaint with the EEOC charging that the changes to the insurance benefits violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against them based on religion or sex.

The letter the EEOC sent to the school said the plan change resulted in discrimination based on sex, but found no discrimination based on religion. The letter called only the contraception change discriminatory; it did not mention the change in coverage for abortion or elective sterilization. A spokesman at the EEOC in Washington declined to comment Friday, saying that confidentiality laws prevent the agency even from confirming that a complaint has been received or an investigation was undertaken.

The letter said the next step is for the college and those who filed the complaint to try to reach an agreement to settle their differences. That seems unlikely, given Mr. Thierfelder's language. If no agreement is reached, the EEOC could then file a federal lawsuit against the college. [Which the college should win under the First Amendment]


British students lying about family backgrounds to win university places, figures reveal

Sixth formers are lying about their family backgrounds to meet university "social engineering" admissions criteria

Up to 15 per cent of candidates who claimed on their application forms they had been in care later admitted they had "made a mistake", according to figures provided by universities. The revelation comes as universities are under increasing pressure to take into account candidates' social circumstances when offering him places. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is drawing up a framework which will lead to students from disadvantaged families being given lower grade offers than middle-class students.

Application forms include sections where sixth formers can declare that they were brought up in a care home, that their parents did not go into higher education, or that they attended summer school classes. But it can be revealed that the vast majority of UK universities have no systems in place to check the information being entered by students on their Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) form.

A small number of universities, including three from the Russell group of top institutions, said they later found out that up to one in seven candidates who declared they had been in care on their forms later admitted that they been filled the box "in error".

Critics said that universities were being forced to "socially engineer" their intakes on the basis of potentially false information. Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "Universities are taking this information at face value but given the huge competition to get in, it is not surprising that people are doing what they can to maximise their chances. "It is possible that the ticks in the boxes are genuine mistakes or they could be an attempt to try something out and then claim it is a mistake if they are found out.

"These attempts to make admissions fairer are actually making them less fair. The best way to get the best candidates is a national examination that distinguishes between students and is externally validated evidence of achievement."

Geoff Lucas, the secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, representing leading public schools, said: "The Government is creating a many-headed monster with this. "The more we go down this road of using information about a candidate's background in deciding who gets places, the less chance there is of verifying it because of the practicalities."

Of the 62 universities which responded to a Freedom of Information request, almost all failed to carry out checks on any of the family background or "contextual" information provided in the Ucas form. Six indicated that they have a follow-up system where those who have been in care are contacted before the start of term to give them additional support. Of those, four discovered that a number of students had provided false information.

Liverpool University said 15 candidates had filled in the indicator "in error" from the 103 that ticked the box, while Newcastle said four applicants were found to have "incorrectly indicated that they had been in care." At Liverpool Hope University, of the 40 care leavers followed-up by the institution, four admitted to having not been in care. Edinburgh University said that of the 18 students contacted to confirm their status, two said that they had mistakenly identified themselves as having been in care. A number of universities have explicitly stated that being in care or being the first in the family to attend university will be looked on favourably in admissions.

A spokesman for Liverpool University said that while being in care did not trigger extra points, the university does "ensure that care leavers are considered carefully so that an appropriate offer is made". At Oxford University, candidates who are predicted three A grades but who also tick three out of five contextual indicator boxes, including time spent in care, are guaranteed an interview. The university said it only checked the information on care leavers at the stage that applicants have received an offer but it was not aware that any candidate had supplied incorrect information.

At Edinburgh University, humanities and social science and geography departments give "additional credit" to students who have parents who have not previously attended university. However, the admissions office does not check if the information provided on parental education levels in the Ucas form is correct.

Nottingham University has no system to check if background information provided in the Ucas form is correct. Yet the university's admission policy says an applicant's examination grades may be "valued more highly" if they have been in care or their parent have not attended university.

Evidence collected by Ucas suggests that some sixth formers do lie in their application forms. Plagiarism software used to vet students personal statements for the first time last year found as many as 400 would-be doctors had lifted 60 per cent of their statements from websites.

Ucas said that the proportion of applicants who indicated they had been in care was less than 1 per cent and had dropped this year compared to last. A spokesman said: "Where such information is used, it does not result in either an automatic offer of a place or a lower grade offer to a candidate."


British schools inspectorate report criticises vocational diploma over poor English and maths teaching

Almost half of teenagers studying for the new Diploma are not receiving satisfactory English and maths teaching, Ofsted will say today in its first inspector’s report on the qualification. The diploma, which the Government hopes will replace A levels, is intended to bridge the gap between academic and vocational qualifications.

Among many of the first cohort of 14 to 19-year-old students taking the diploma there was “little firm evidence of their achievement in functional skills”, including maths, English and IT, inspectors said.

There are currently five diplomas on offer: construction and the built environment; media; engineering; IT; and society, health and development. Inspectors found that pupils chose subjects along traditional gender lines — despite hopes that they would appeal to all young people regardless of their sex.

The diploma is split into two parts — principal learning, in which students are taught about the employment sector and work-related skills — and functional skills, to help them to develop their English, maths and IT skills. “Work in functional skills lacked co-ordination in just under half the consortia visited and, as a result, the quality of teaching and learning varied considerably,” inspectors said.

Chris Keates, the chief executive of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “The fault lies with the way that functional skills are designed, not the quality of teaching and learning.”

Ofsted inspectors were also concerned about the lack of formal assessment of the qualification. “There was little evidence of frequent marking or checking of students’ knowledge and understanding in relation to work they had completed,” the report said.

Schools offering the diploma work together because of the specialist facilities that some courses require. But timetabling clashes lead to some students missing lessons in their own school and having to catch up later, “putting considerable extra pressure on those involved”, inspectors said.

Only 12,000 pupils have taken up the courses so far — less than half the number estimated — and the proportion of children registered as “gifted and talented” who were taking the diploma was low, inspectors said.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, wants the diploma to become the qualification of choice and replace A levels as the gold standard. Vernon Coaker, the Schools Minister, said: “While we are pleased with the progress made so far, we acknowledge that more needs to be done to improve the teaching of diplomas, which is why we are increasing our support for schools and colleges.”


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