Letters & Op-Eds 2014

Supreme Court decision in birth control cases could redefine religious freedom in America

As President John F. Kennedy reminded in Houston in 1960, “There was no religious test at the Alamo.”

There also shouldn’t be a religious test to work as a craft-store clerk, cabinetry maker, cemetery groundskeeper or nursing home attendant — or to have access to basic health care like birth control and family planning services.

But that’s exactly what religious extremists are asking for in Washington, here in Texas and across the country. These groups seek to redefine religious liberty to mean the freedom to trample on the consciences of others and impose their beliefs on other people, regardless of their faiths.

Lawyers for Hobby Lobby Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., two for-profit businesses, argued this week before the U.S. Supreme Court that the religious beliefs of a CEO, majority shareholder or any other employer matter more than the deeply held beliefs of the people upon whose hard work their businesses depend. The suits, if successful, would subject all workers to their bosses’ religious dictates, regardless of the workers’ own beliefs.

This is part and parcel to a campaign by religious conservatives, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are attempting to overturn one benefit contained in the Affordable Care Act — a requirement for contraceptive coverage to be provided with no insurance copay for the employee.

The bishops have failed to convince Catholics to conform to their ultraconservative interpretation of church teachings on sex, sexuality and reproductive health. So now they are turning to the Supreme Court, Congress and state legislatures nationwide, asking them to enforce their restrictive policies on everyone — Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Bishops, including in Dallas and Fort Worth, have filed lawsuits against the insurance coverage benefit.

There are 15 Catholic bishops in Texas and 7.1 million Catholics who believe in and respect the social justice tradition of our faith. Most lay Catholics respect a woman’s right to follow her conscience when it comes to decisions about her own reproductive health. In fact, 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women follow their conscience and use a birth control method that is banned by the Vatican.

Moreover, a 2013 poll for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund found 68 percent of registered voters in Texas — including the same percentage of Catholics — think that women’s access to family planning and birth control is important. And 56 percent of registered voters opposed allowing employers to deny their workers insurance coverage for birth control.

Support for birth control is also strong among clergy. Last year, 371 religious leaders from across Texas signed on to a statement calling for public policies that protect women’s ability to access birth control according to their own conscience or religious beliefs.

Yet Texas women have seen politicians and pressure groups engage in a yearslong campaign to limit their reproductive health care choices. That campaign has included failed abstinence-only sex education policies, draconian cuts to family planning funding in 2011 and passage of some of the most extreme anti-abortion laws over the past several legislative sessions.

Lawmakers have pointed to their personal religious beliefs to justify these attacks on women’s health care. And now the Supreme Court is deciding whether the personal religious beliefs of employers should trump the similarly deeply held beliefs of their workers.

“Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you,” Catholic John F. Kennedy reminded Protestant ministers gathered for his speech in Houston in 1960. And while workers at Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties might be the victims of religious discrimination by their bosses if these cases succeed, the ramifications of their employers’ lawsuits will hurt many, many more people.

The battles that are being waged in the courts today about religious liberty are just the tip of the iceberg. So much is at stake.

Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization of religious and community leaders who support religious freedom and individual liberties. Sara Hutchinson is the domestic program director at Catholics for Choice, an organization that seeks to shape and advance sexual and reproductive ethics.

This letter was originally published by the Austin American-Stateman.