Contraceptive Coverage: Whose Religious Freedom Is It?
Frances Kissling, writing for RH Reality Check, made excellent points about why it’s not up to President Obama to determine which definition of “Catholic” is more valid than another by writing health care regulations around what the Catholic bishops claim to be the final authority on what Catholics believe while ignoring what the vast majority of Catholics actually do, which is use contraception. I want to add to her points and say that having the same regulations for every employer requiring insurance to fully cover birth control is a matter of religious freedom at its most basic. When Catholic organizations use their employees’ economic dependence as leverage to force pregnancy on them, no matter how unwilling they are to be pregnant, they deprive those women of their basic right to believe what they wish on matters of faith. Religious freedom is primarily an individual right. When an organization’s beliefs come in conflict with individual beliefs, the individual right to freedom of religion must triumph over organizational claims. Doing otherwise is allowing organizations to create a government-supported authority to discriminate and control on the basis of religion, depriving individuals of basic religious rights.
This argument isn’t unprecedented. After all, I can’t open a business and refuse to serve people because they have differing religious beliefs than I do. This is recognized as a violation of their basic freedom of religion. And that’s just a matter of serving sandwiches and fixing tires for people. It’s much, much easier to go to a different sandwich shop or car mechanic than it is to get another job or go to another school. Formal religious discrimination against those who don’t believe contraception is a sin has serious ramifications for those who are discriminated against in such a way. Anyone who truly supports religious freedom should therefore understand that women’s reproductive rights and equal treatment by their employers is part and parcel of religious freedom.
So how is it that a handful of religious zealots have managed to drape their belief that they should force others to live by their dogma in the mantle of “religious freedom?” How have they done so with enough success that Obama seems likely to give them wide powers to attempt to force pregnancy on the unwilling as if that was a protected constitutional right?
Because, believe me, that’s how this argument is playing out, as if forcing others to live under your religious rules is a form of religious “freedom”---that the freedom of institutions relies on depriving people, specifically women, of their individual freedoms. That’s because those who oppose women’s rights are dropping the phrase “religious freedom” all over the place, trying to redefine it as the right to take away someone else’s right of conscience through discrimination and economic pressure. It’s not an unusual tactic. During the civil rights era, those who wished to discriminate on the basis of race would often claim that their right to push black people out of their businesses and neighborhoods trumped black people’s right not be discriminated against. Now they’re trying the same tactic, arguing that the greater freedom is not the right to individual conscience, but to bully women who don’t agree with them into living by their religious dogma.
Feminists have somewhat let this happen by not talking up religious freedom enough. For some reason, we feel more comfortable discussing reproductive rights in terms of women’s rights and health care (after all, women who have ready access to contraception have better health, as do their children) than as a matter of religious rights. Unfortunately, by doing so, we allow those with anti-woman ends to lay claim, facetiously, to the language of religious freedom. That language actually belongs to pro-choicers, who want to secure women’s individual right to determine her religious beliefs and have the right to live by them. The vast majority of American women believe that contraception is moral, and attempts to prevent them from living out that belief are unadorned religious persecution.
Luckily, some folks are starting to make these connections more directly. Students at Fordham University are standing up to the university’s coercive anti-contraception practices of not only not allowing students to access contraception through the student health services, but charging an excessive fee if they go to a doctor off-campus to get a prescription for birth control. This means, at the end of the day, that both men and women are having sex, but only women are being punished for it. That makes it an incursion against women’s rights. But it also means that while being sexual is legal and is, in the eyes of many free Americans, completely moral, students who disagree with Catholic dogma are being punished financially for exercising their freedom of conscience. I’m hard-pressed to see how enacting financial discrimination against people for having different religious beliefs is not religious discrimination.
As Frances notes, this isn’t about Catholics vs. non-Catholics. Many Catholics believe that contraception is right and moral, and they have an absolute First Amendment right to do so. The government can’t be in the position of telling people that their definition of the faith is more “right” than someone else’s. The government simply has to step in if institutions are using discriminatory practices in order to coerce people away from their freedom of conscience. Financial coercion should certainly count. If the Catholic Church doesn’t want women to use contraception, they are perfectly free to make their arguments, and if they’re good enough, maybe they’ll convince some women. That persuasion isn’t working suggests something about the strength of the arguments. That their arguments can’t hold up on their own doesn’t mean that they should get special dispensation to introduce financial coercion into the equation.