Board of Pensions’ response to GA referral lacks remedy for Relief of Conscience concerns Print

 The 219th General Assembly (2010) urged the Board of Pensions:

 "to develop a plan to ensure that funds from any Relief of Conscience churches do not go to fund abortions through any avenue."

Unlike their serious consideration of a similar "urging" related to the extension of benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Plan members, the BOP brushed off the concerns of Plan members who find the Plan's abortion coverage an affront to their Christian conscience. 

The action of the GA was an alternate resolution to a Commissioner's Resolution (Item 18-12) urging the Board of Pensions to "discontinue paying for induced abortion as a covered benefit in its Medical Benefits Plan (unless a licensed physician documents that it is necessary to preserve the physical life of the mother)."

Even as the response may meet the formal criteria of a GA referral to one of its agencies, it fails to meet the standard of decent consideration of the underlying concerns and exposes weaknesses in the wording of the GA approved alternate resolution.

The BOP response fails to provide what was asked for: a real relief of conscience for those within the PCUSA for whom abortion coverage is considered a sin and the use of their contributions to the church to fund abortions is unacceptable.

It is unclear who authored the BOP's response to the referral. What is clear is the administrative process used to pass it.

  • The BOP received the referral from the 219th GA in July 2010.
  • In February 2012 the Executive Committee of the Board adopted the response to the referral.
  • A document containing the BOP responses to GA referrals was sent electronically to the members of the Board of Directors as an attachment to their March 3 meeting agenda.
  • On March 3 the Board entered into closed-door executive session for two hours. When the meeting re-opened it was announced that the Board had approved all responses to referrals from the GA. However, the only referral for which written documentation was provided to observers at the meeting was in relation to the extension of benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of Plan members.

PPL has since obtained the Board's response to referral of Item 18-12 through requests to the BOP Corporate Secretary, Andrew Browne.

This is their response to the referred GA Item 18-12:

"The scope of such a plan would be far beyond the reach of the Board of Pensions. As contemplated by the 219th General Assembly (2010), such a plan would require that any dollar that passed through a Relief of Conscience employing organization be insulated from paying for an abortion at any time in the future."

"While the Board of Pensions is vigilant to ensure that claims that may be for the elective termination of a pregnancy are not paid from the dues remitted by Relief of Conscience employing organizations to the Board of Pensions, the Board of Pensions has no control over funds expended by Relief of Conscience employing organizations for anything other than those dues. Dollars spent by Relief of Conscience employing organizations to purchase goods and services as varied as insurance, utilities, music, and communion supplies may be expended by their next holder for any legal purpose. The Board of Pensions has no means to control these many avenues through which funds from Relief of Conscience employing organizations may go to fund abortions."

The BOP response falls short on several counts:

  • it does not address the central issue;
  • it expresses no pastoral concern; and
  • it provides no remedy.

PPL's concerns were made known to the Board prior to their February 2012 Executive Committee conference call and prior to the March 2-3 meeting of the Board where the final decision on the response to referrals was rendered.

In an email in January 2011, PPL Director, Marie Bowen, wrote the Corporate Secretary of the BOP stating the hope that they would address the problem of dues streams coming from per capita paid to presbyteries, synods, and GA for Medical Benefits Dues at those levels. Dues provided for staff of higher governing councils are paid from per capita dollars contributed by ROC and non-ROC churches. There is currently no process for separating dues paid out of the per capita funds that are paid by ROC churches to higher councils from the stream that pays for abortions. And, there is no process for a presbytery or synod to request Relief of Conscience. That fact was central to the discussion in the GA committee that dealt with the original CR asking the BOP to cease abortion coverage. Those were the "funds" in question that prompted the alternate resolution.

Unlike their handling of the "urging" of the GA related to those who concerns center around the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered advocates in the PCUSA, the Board did not form a special committee to examine the concerns of the advocates in the PCUSA for the unborn who have no voice but ours. Unlike their commitment of time at national listening sessions to the LGBT advocates, the BOP did not seek to hear from those concerned in this matter before issuing their response. They did not seek input from the members of the GA committee that heard and wrote the referral, nor did they seek input from the CR advocates. Both the process and the outcome are regrettable.

We are all grateful for the seriousness with which the Board guards and tends the funds sent to them from the church. Their investment strategists and attorney do amazing work. However, in response to this referral, a pastoral approach was needed as abortion coverage under the BOP Plan is a painful and distressing crisis of conscience for real people in the real pews of the PCUSA.

The very idea that our offerings might contribute to an unborn child being ripped apart limb from limb and sucked out of his mother's womb is crushing. It requires us to take action to prevent such a thing. We—the members in the pews and our pastors who are members in the Plan—deserve a response from the BOP that considers the depth of our pain and the strength of our conviction on this issue.

The inequity of the Board in the handling of the referral related to same-sex benefits and abortion is stunning. The Board of Pensions went to great lengths and great expense to answer the GA request to provide benefits to same gender domestic partners. They responded to that request by establishing a special Task Force that worked for a year and a half on the item, met frequently, held national listening sessions and devoted untold hours of staff and attorney time drafting amendments to the Plan. When the Board heard their interim reports they met in closed-door Executive Session, so it was unknown until March 3 what they would do. But when the Board approved the response to that referral they announced it with a press release and provided all the observers at the meeting with a full press packet. All other referrals from the 2010 GA were dealt with in the context of one Executive Committee conference call, sent electronically to Board members as an attachment to the minutes of that call, approved by the Board and never actually reported out in any printed fashion.

The bottom line is that the BOP did nothing in response to GA's referral of Item 18-12 that provides a remedy for ROC churches. It seems clear that they have no intention of doing anything to "develop a plan" or to "ensure" ROC churches that funds they pay to the BOP and councils of the PCUSA will not be used to pay for abortion coverage. It is not the first or only instance of failure of the BOP to connect with the felt needs of its Plan members and the congregations who pay their dues.

Information on the Relief of Conscience process was rare for 20 years.

PPL receives questions from 10-12 pastors each year who have just learned that the denomination pays for abortions under the Medical Benefits Plan and they want to know how to apply for Relief of Conscience. Why do they contact PPL instead of the BOP? The answer varies, but many times it is because they have been unable to find the information they seek by contacting the BOP.

The current Relief of Conscience Plan was approved by the General Assembly in 1998.

A previous General Assembly had referred the matter to the Board of Pensions and charged them to find a process that provided authentic relief of conscience for those objecting to abortion coverage in the Medical Benefits Plan. The BOP responded as follows:

29.0114 The Board of Pensions will divide the dues stream between those employing organizations and subscribers who have not sought relief of conscience and those who have been certified by their presbyteries of jurisdiction to be relief-of-conscience employing organizations. All medical claims for abortion procedures and HMO capitation fees shall be paid from the non-relief-of-conscience dues stream. A dollar amount equal to the cost of abortion claims from the prior year will be set aside from the relief-of-conscience dues stream and placed in an account to assist in the medical claims of adopted newborn dependents. After payment of those claims and fees, the two dues streams will be joined and all other medical claims and costs will be paid from the merged dues streams.

Minutes of the 210th General Assembly, Part I, p. 544

In approving the above response, the 1998 General Assembly added the following comment:

That the Board of Pensions continue to communicate to all sessions and pastors the specific description of the relief of conscience program, including details on how to enroll in it.  (bold added)

Minutes of the 210th General Assembly, Part I, p. 38

The Board of Pensions did send a letter to all congregations in 1999. No further communication about Relief of Conscience was forthcoming until 2008. In the intervening years, PPL provided a booklet that became a resource for pastors and sessions who were deeply disturbed by the funding of abortions through the Medical Benefits Plan. "Abortion and the Medical Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (USA)" is in its 3rd edition and thousands of copies have been distributed.

In 2008 the General Assembly, realizing the importance of communicating the ROC program to PC(USA) congregations, directed the Board of Pensions to:

Provide annually a Relief of Conscience Plan Report, and to confirm annually with particular churches their participation in the Relief of Conscience Plan. The annual report was to specifically include:

    1. specific details of the Relief Of Conscience (ROC) plan;
    2. an explanation of the process for participation in the ROC plan;
    3. an accounting of the total number of churches participating in the ROC plan in the previous calendar year;
    4. an accounting of the total dollar figure paid under the relief of conscience program;
    5. an accounting of the total dollar figure dispensed by the Board of Pensions for adoption programs.

 Item 15-02, 218th General Assembly.

The BOP was directed to include the Relief of Conscience Report in the Annual Report of the Board of Pensions and make it available on the Board of Pensions' Web site. The 2010 report includes the following description of the process:

An explanation of the process for participation in the ROC plan

A session or other employing organization that seeks relief of conscience must pass a resolution that declares it objects as a matter of conscience to the payment of abortion procedures by the Medical Plan. This resolution must be directed to the presbytery of jurisdiction, which acts to grant or deny relief of conscience. Employing organizations that seek relief of conscience are advised to discuss their presbytery's procedure with the executive/general presbyter, stated clerk, or committee on ministry. If the presbytery grants relief of conscience, it notifies the Board of Pensions. The Board of Pensions in turn acknowledges to the session and the presbytery receipt of their actions and places the congregation or employing organization on the relief of conscience roll.

2010 Relief of Conscience (ROC) Plan Report.

Since the annual reporting requirement was put into effect, the number of ROC churches has increased from 500 to 539. In a time when conservative and evangelical churches (many of them ROC congregations) are pulling out of the PCUSA, such an increase serves as an indication that many churches were previously unaware of 1) the coverage of abortion and 2) the availability of the ROC plan prior to the first annual Relief of Conscience Report issued in 2009.

Problems in communication and ROC process persist.

Recently it has come to PPL's attention that many churches are not receiving annual confirmation of their Relief of Conscience status. When they contact the BOP to ask why, more than a few have learned that their ROC certification from the Presbytery was never received. In at least one recent situation, it was discovered that the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery had never notified the BOP that the congregations' request for ROC had been granted. When this situation was aired on a Facebook page, several other pastors were alerted and realized they also had not received their annual confirmation. Whether the breakdown occurs with presbytery staff or BOP communications, this is a problem that damages trust in a time when the denomination can ill afford to squander what little trust remains with its members.

Why is ROC not enough to relieve our conscience?

It is a fair question. The answer is aptly stated in this paragraph from the rationale of the original Commissioner's Resolution:

No plan for merely separating streams of money can fully satisfy the issue of conscience for those Presbyterians who believe abortion is morally wrong. Their conscience is still offended by being spiritually and covenantally joined to a church body that pays for abortion.     

Is there any remedy? Certainly none is found in this action of the Board of Pensions. Perhaps the 2012 General Assembly will agree and will refer it back to the BOP again. Such an action might preserve hope for those willing to wait.