Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Church Denied Insurance Coverage Because It Supports Gay Rights

A Fort Wayne-based insurer, Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co., has denied property insurance coverage to a Michigan church because of the risk associated with its national governing board's support of gay rights! The insurance company told the West Adrian United Church of Christ in Adrian, Michigan that coverage was being denied because of the potential for violence and litigation against the church. Insurance regulators in both Indiana and Michigan say what Brotherhood did is perfectly within the law. Here's the report from today's Wall Street Journal:

A small Protestant church in Adrian, Mich., has weathered controversies surrounding abolition, the Civil War, desegregation and Vietnam since it was established in 1836. Now, because its denomination supports gay rights, the church has been deemed too risky for property insurance.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. of Fort Wayne, Ind., turned down the West Adrian United Church of Christ, citing its national governing body's approval of gay marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

"Based on national media reports, controversial stances such as those indicated in your application responses have resulted in property damage and the potential for increased litigation among churches that have chosen to publicly endorse these positions," Marci J. Fretz, a regional underwriter for Brotherhood Mutual -- one of the nation's largest insurers of religious institutions -- wrote in a letter to the church last summer.

For years, same-sex marriage and gay rights have been among the nation's most divisive social issues in both religion and politics. Several Episcopal churches have voted to leave the global Anglican Communion because its American branch supports gay rights and ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003.

Churches and other policyholders have sometimes had their coverage revoked in the past in response to specific acts of violence or property damage related to social or political tensions. Some churches in the South reported cancellations after a wave of arson attacks in the mid-1990s, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Many of the incidents occurred at predominantly black churches in the South.

But the West Adrian United Church of Christ may be among the few such institutions denied coverage because of fears about a destructive backlash against its stance, rather than in the aftermath of an incident. Its pastor, the Rev. John Kottke, says he knows of no acts of violence or threats against his church, its congregation of fewer than 200 members, or its parent organization.

Michigan voters banned gay marriage in 2004. And West Adrian isn't among the local branches of the United Church of Christ that has officially endorsed a resolution by its governing body affirming gay rights.

Mr. Kottke says he filled out a questionnaire from Brotherhood Mutual in hopes of getting a better insurance deal for the church, after one of its members referred him to an agent representing the company. The church, located in southeastern Michigan between Ann Arbor and Toledo, Ohio, has been insured for years without any problem by Safeco Corp., a publicly traded property and casualty insurer. It recently renewed its Safeco coverage.

"Every insurance company is in the business of assessing risk," says Brotherhood Mutual spokeswoman Mitzi L. Thomas, an assistant vice president. "Some insurance companies will take on a risk and other insurance companies may not want to take on that risk."

Brotherhood Mutual was founded in 1917 as a mutual-aid association by a sect of evangelical Mennonites, according to the company's Web site, and now serves 30,000 churches in 29 states and the District of Columbia. It is one of the largest insurers of religious institutions in the U.S.

Ms. Thomas didn't have any examples of violence attributable to a church's support for gay clergy or same-sex marriage. She added, however, that disputes over gay marriage and clergy have led to splits in other churches and congregations, resulting in costly litigation.

Ms. Thomas said she wasn't aware of other churches Brotherhood Mutual turned down because of positions on gay clergy or marriage, but the insurer has rejected churches because of other controversial positions. "Advocating violence, militia groups, we have turned down for that. Picketing at military funerals, making statements against religious leaders of other faiths...are some of the reasons," she said.

Insurance regulators for Michigan and Indiana said the company was within the law in such underwriting decisions. Insurers generally can set their own underwriting criteria and decide who or what not to insure, as long as they don't violate state or federal antidiscrimination laws or other specific prohibitions.

United Church of Christ, formed in 1957 by a merger of the New England Congregationalist churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, is known for its history of social activism. It ordained its first openly gay pastor in 1972 and affirmed support for same-sex marriage with a resolution at the General Synod, its governing body, in 2005. Of 5,700 United Church of Christ churches, 700 have publicly stated that they are "open and affirming" of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. West Adrian isn't one of them.

"As far as we know, this is the first time one of our churches has been denied an insurance quote because of their denomination's affirmation of gay and lesbian people," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, communications director of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland.

He said acts against its churches are rare and mostly have involved minor vandalism. "It happens to all churches and public buildings for a variety of reasons," he said. "We don't have any information that would say our gay-affirming churches have more destruction to their property."

In addition to questions about endorsing or practicing ordination of homosexual clergy or same-sex marriage, the Brotherhood Mutual questionnaire asks whether a church advises members to forgo medical treatment in favor of faith healing, practices handling snakes or poisonous animals, endorses or is affiliated with organizations that endorse racial or ethnic discrimination or use of violence for political or social change.

Neither Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merrill, Wis., nor GuideOne Insurance of West Des Moines, Iowa, two other major insurers of church property, said they had heard of similar underwriting policies. They said they don't ask about support for gay ordination or marriage on their applications for insurance.


Anonymous said...

The lesson here is, if you're insured now, don't cancel your existing insurance without knowing you'll be covered.

And don't think that filing an application and giving an agent a check, is insurance. It constitutes provisional coverage, but the company's underwriters can still reject new applicants even after you've paid a premium and filed the application.

They can even cancel or refuse to renew existing policies. They are not obligated by any state's regulations to cover all applicants.

It's a tough time for insurance companies these days, if we read these tea leaves correctly. Luckily, this church already had coverage, so they won't be without.

Anonymous said...

"It's a tough time for insurance companies these days"

Not for their CEO's who rake in millions.

Anonymous said...

"Not for their CEO's who rake in millions."

This is a Ft Wayne based company, not a big city company. Ignorance is bliss.

Anonymous said...
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