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Towards a Truly “Civil” Society

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By Sara Hutchinson
Vol. XXXIII – No. 2 2012

The debate over religious freedom is front and center this election season. But the debate is a parody of what a real discussion about religious freedom should be.
In their campaign against certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has claimed that their right to religious liberty eclipsed others’ right to contraceptive access. Others have argued that this was not a debate about religious freedom at all—it was simply about reproductive rights.

Both sides are wrong. There is a real debate to have about religious freedom, but it’s not the one that the bishops want it to be. Some of the pertinent questions include: Are there any circumstances in which certain groups may be denied healthcare services for religious reasons? What privileges, if any, should service providers demand from the government?

A broad spectrum of organizations has come together as the Coalition for Liberty & Justice because, as both secular and religious groups, we oppose efforts by conservative religious advocates to restrict individuals’ ability to access a wide variety of services under the banner of religious freedom.

Visions of America

With the launch of its Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty last September, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was transparent about the future it was working towards. If the bishops get their way, hard-working families will not be able to afford contraception; with a shrinking safety net, more children will grow up in poverty. Victims of sex trafficking will not receive unbiased counseling and will endure a forced pregnancy. Lesbian, gay and transgender people will be refused jobs and services; committed couples will be denied the rights and benefits of marriage. Men and women won’t be able to get their prescriptions filled if their employer or pharmacist judges the use of the medicine immoral. People at risk of contracting or spreading HIV won’t learn that condoms can help save their lives and the lives of people they love. Women who need abortions, even to save their lives, will be turned away. This is not what Americans want, and it’s not what America is at its foundation.

Last year, Catholics for Choice heard one American’s story, that of a teacher at a Catholic school in the Midwest, whom we’ll call “Sandra.” This young woman had taken a pay cut to do the type of work she loved, but found out at the pharmacy counter that her new insurance plan did not cover birth control. Paying out-of-pocket for the contraceptive method that worked best for her, a non-generic prescription, was a significant strain on the budget she had carefully planned with her husband. Sandra especially objected to the interference in her personal decision-making about contraception: “I don’t like being told by some guy that I’ve never met that I can’t use it.”

Sandra and employees at all other “religious institutions” should be granted an equal opportunity to access affordable contraception. Ensuring such access avoids the untenable position of allowing the government to determine which employees’ consciences—and health— matter, simply on the basis of where they work. But what we’re hearing from the USCCB is that these women’s ability to make moral decisions for themselves doesn’t matter. The conscience of people like Sandra may be run over by an employer or bishop, and that would be acceptable collateral damage.

An Orwellian Coup

That the bishops would have convinced anyone that their version of “religious freedom” is anything but oppression represents an Orwellian coup. The writer George Orwell paid close atten-tion to anyone, from politicians to businesspeople, who spoke in jargon because he said “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” In this way, a crusade has been whipped up by sweeping calls to defend religious liberty from its enemies, when the stakes and even the players have been depicted incorrectly. The USCCB would have us believe that a school, a Taco Bell or a hospital has a “conscience” and “freedom of religion.” They do not. Individuals, according to our Catholic tradition, have consciences and deserve to exercise them without coercion. Individuals also deserve to have their freedom of and freedom from religion protected.

There is a natural give-and-take that is expected from members of a society. We “give” money from our insurance premiums for coverage of many medical services that we may not agree with or need ourselves, and expect to avail ourselves of that safety net when we need it. The institutional Catholic church, for its part, benefits from a tax-preferred status and has a long history of seeking government funding streams—including support for Catholic schools, hospitals and programs run by Catholic Charities, which give back to the community. But just as institutions do not have a conscience, they are not citizens. Individuals have a conscience, and they enjoy citizenship. The only “second-class citizens” created by laws allowing employers to refuse contraceptive coverage are women. It is absolutely discriminatory to allow the beliefs of employers to violate those of employees. But the bishops want to rewrite several important parts of our American social contract.

In the laundry list the bishops laid out last September, we see that the false idea of institutional conscience is a handy excuse for preventing same-sex couples from adopting, or victims of human trafficking from accessing comprehensive reproductive healthcare. The same reasoning is used to justify keeping the person living in rural Africa with no local access to condoms from protecting herself from the spread of HIV. The USCCB believes it has a right to receive government funding to provide religiously circumscribed services here and abroad, and claims that the good that it does in some sectors of society gives it license to discriminate at taxpayer expense in others. It’s a cold kind of brinksmanship that puts too many individuals’ freedom in the balance.

Room at the Table

The bishops’ misrepresentation of religious freedom has brought together a remarkable coalition of diverse groups who are all on the same page. Can you imagine sitting at one table with feminists, atheists, progressive Catholics, rabbis, gay Catholics, sexual and reproductive health nonprofits, as well as groups from the medical and legal fields? Representatives from each of these fields make up the Coalition for Liberty & Justice, and each advocacy organization serves a different community. There are those keeping an eye on the separation of church and state. Medical and nursing students are looking to the care they want to provide for future patients. Advocates for LGBT rights wish to prevent discrimination from being encoded into law by religious fiat. And religious groups across the board see that giving one ultraconservative sector of one faith special legal protections jeopardizes the freedom of worship for all people of faith. Everyone agrees that the most equitable solution to differing values lies in creating the minimum structures necessary to help provide services to individuals who want them. The coalition supports freedom of conscience—for individuals, including health-care providers and for service recipients, but not for institutions.

This wide variety of stakeholders has come together precisely because this debate means a lot of things to a lot of different people. The bishops have denied that their recent campaign against the regulation is about contraception, but for the everyday person who utilizes contraception, having affordable access to such services has many implications. No-cost contraception for the average woman, including many Catholic women, can mean following her religious beliefs, following her conscience, protecting her health, saving money for her family, protecting her future or myriad other things that we cannot be privy to. If the bishops succeed in eliminating coverage, it will most definitely be about contraceptive access, and all of the things that access means to millions of Americans. Each of the other items on the bishops’ religious freedom wish list has similar concrete effects on real people.

In contrast to some of the contentious debate we’ve heard about religious freedom recently, working with the Coalition for Liberty & Justice has been a reminder that civil society is actually supposed to be civil. Nonprofits serving different constituencies don’t have to be in competition. Rather, groups that are secure enough in their values that they can listen to others’ differing perspectives are free to share resources, which can be taken home to their stakeholders and translated into more capacity and deeper wisdom. Catholics for Choice approached Nancy Kaufman from the National Council of Jewish Women as co-convener in this spirit, and now, joined by more than 50 additional organizations, we are realizing the benefits of identifying commonalities among the differences of our backgrounds.

For us as Catholics, social justice is at the core of our faith. We are compelled by our religious tradition to work toward justice and equity for all and to create a society in which women and men, young and old, poor and rich are treated with the same dignity and respect and granted the same opportunity. As Catholics, our tradition of social justice informs everything we do and defines how we relate to family members, neighbors, coworkers and our fellow Americans. It requires us to stand with those who are the neediest—the hungry, the homeless, the jobless—and then help to fill their needs.

Each of the coalition’s members has traveled distinct paths to get here, but we have arrived at the same conclusion: freedom of religion must translate into individual freedom of conscience, or it’s not true freedom at all.

Sara Hutchinson is the domestic program director for Catholics for Choice and coordinates the work of the Coalition for Liberty & Justice for CFC.


It’s Not Just About Catholics…

By Sammie Moshenberg
National Council of Jewish Women

As Jews, we hold the constitutional protection of religious liberty as quite precious— not only because we are a minority in the United States but also because our history is replete with instances of religious persecution and oppression. This country has ensured the Jewish community what may well be historically unprecedented religious freedom, thanks to separation of religion and state and safeguards for the free exercise of religion. We have, however, had to be vigilant to protect this freedom, which is why the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was quick to take up the Catholics for Choice invitation to co-convene the Coalition for Liberty & Justice.

When it comes to matters like access to healthcare, the freedom to marry and what students are taught in public schools, among other issues, we are seeing a continual, well-funded and powerful campaign to change laws and public policies to institutionalize one particular religious viewpoint. What does elevating one religious tradition over another do to the constitutionally protected right of an individual to make decisions based on her or his religious beliefs or conscience? If laws allow religiously affiliated institutions to impose a single religious belief on all of their employees, where’s the protection for those individual workers’ religious freedom? And what is the impact of legislating religious beliefs on the separation of religion and state?

Just as there are differing religious teachings on social issues among religions, so, too, are there different rabbinic interpretations of Jewish law on those issues. Despite these differences, we should all be able to get behind efforts that preserve the separation of religion and state, which guards against the imposition of a particular faith view on everyone. In 1996, NCJW circulated a letter to rabbis across the country urging the US Senate not to overturn President Clinton’s veto of the so-called “partial birth abortion” ban. More than 700 rabbis signed on, making it clear that although they may not all share the same rabbinic interpretation of Jewish laws and texts regarding abortion, they all agreed that legislating restrictions on reproductive choice impedes a woman’s ability to make decisions based on her individual conscience or religious beliefs.

Quite simply, that is what is at stake when the state takes sides on issues that involve deeply held religious views, and that’s why NCJW has joined the Coalition for Liberty & Justice.