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Cover Story: Birth control battle

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BELMONT, NC (WBTV) - Religious freedom versus the Obama administration.

A local catholic college fights back against a new rule requiring contraceptive health coverage for its employees.

It's a hot button issue from politicians to catholic schools - whether or not the federal government should require religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County is already challenging the rule in court.

We learned school officials are also refusing to do something else when it comes to the new mandate.

The federal government has given groups an extra year to comply with the new mandate requiring them to provide birth control as part of President Obama's new Health Care Law.

But Belmont Abbey, which is suing the federal government, says it won't go along with the extension either.

And the debate has also reached into the halls of Congress.

Belmont Abbey College in Belmont won a lot of attention last November when it announced it was taking on Uncle Sam.

Students held signs.  People called it a David versus Goliath story.

Here's the issue.  The new federal government Health Care Law requires all employer-provided health insurance plans must cover basic birth control.  A order that would include Catholic charities, universities and hospitals.

The Catholic Church teaches that contraception, sterilization and abortion are all against God's law.

And the government mandate forces groups like Belmont Abbey to either violate their religious beliefs or pay a hefty fine.

"It's abhorrent to us. It's morally unacceptable to us. We can't do it," says Belmont Abbey College President Dr. William Thierfelder.

Normally religious organizations might get an exemption.

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the health care mandate, says in order to be exempt a religious organization must primarily employ or serve people of the same faith.

Belmont Abbey wouldn't fall under that since it admits non-Catholics.

"We're now starting to see that people are getting up in arms about this. I think they're beginning to understand this is about the First Amendment," said Thierfelder.

The debate has reached the halls of Congress.

Republicans in control of the U.S. House are demanding President Obama overturn the policy.  If not they say Congress will do it.

"This is about Obama having control over every aspect of your life.. especially for women from conception to death," says North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers.

Those in favor of the mandate are casting the debate not as one over religious freedom.. but one over access to affordable preventive care for women.

One Democratic Congresswoman says 28 states already have similar rules on coverage for birth control.

"We'll fight hard to make sure the women of America in the 21st Century can get the insurance coverage they need for family planning and birth control," says Rep. Diana Degette, a Democrat of Colorado.

The rule is causing an election-year furor for President Obama.  The White House wants to search for ways to address Catholics' concerns.

That may not be easy.

"This is about religious liberty. This is about rite of conscience. This is about the First Amendment," said Belmont Abbey College's Thierfelder.

Belmont Abbey's lawsuit was filed in November.

The college sued the Department of Health and Human Services.  DHHS has given groups a one-year extension before the mandate takes effect.

But Belmont Abbey and others who are suing say that's not good enough.

Churches are exempt but hospitals and other institutions are not.

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