Commentary Contraception

Protecting Women’s Rights in a Religious “Right” World

Lisa Kerr

Women received a small victory yesterday when the Obama administration announced that most employers will have to provide contraceptives at no cost to their employees. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops remain strong and determined to take away your rights.

Photo of President Obama by Flickr user lednichenkoolga used under Creative Commons 2.0

Photo of President Obama by Flickr user lednichenkoolga used under Creative Commons 2.0

Threats to women’s reproductive rights have been making headlines for the past few years but women received a small victory yesterday when the Obama administration announced that most employers will have to provide contraceptives at no cost to their employees.

While this is a victory to women’s reproductive rights, there are still a few things women’s rights activists need to consider. First, there is still a loophole for religious nonprofits. According to ThinkProgress.org, “Only houses of worship and other religious nonprofits that primarily employ and serve people of the same faith will be exempt.” For women like me, who used to work for a religious nonprofit, this may not be terrible news since abstinence-only and purity teachings are widespread. However, married women who may not want to have children immediately, or at all, may still have trouble accessing contraceptives due to the financial cost. And due to the fact that many religious nonprofits and houses of worship still hold the belief that women are to be mothers first, and human beings second.

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Second, and perhaps most importantly, are the Roman Catholic bishops who are behind the lobbying that’s threatening women’s access to abortions and contraceptives. These men are simply not going away, nor will they stop lobbying just because they were defeated by the Obama Administration on this small matter. Laura Bassett writes in The Huffington Post

But the erosion of women’s rights didn’t begin with the GOP takeover. President Barack Obama’s health care reform law contained some of the most restrictive abortion language seen in decades.

Lift the curtain, and behind the assault was the conference of bishops.

“It is a very effective lobby, unfortunately, and now they have an ally in the Republican majority because both groups find this a means by which to fight women’s health issues in general,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. “The bishops carry a lot of clout.”

“We consider the two biggest opponents on the other side the Catholic bishops and National Right to Life,” said Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “They are extremely heavy-handed on this issue.”

And what do the Bishops have to say on the matter? 

“By refusing to broaden the exemption, “in effect the president is saying that we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” complained Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” href=”http://www.latimes.com/topic/religion-belief/christianity/roman-catholicism/united-states-conference-of-catholic-bishops-ORCUL000006.topic”>U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairwoman of the board of Franciscan Alliance Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals, said, “This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and 1st Amendment rights.”

When are my rights as  a women more important than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? When religious leaders begin to flaunt money, power, and the threats of “a direct attack on religion and 1st Amendment rights” it seems that we may have a problem on our hands. I have news for the Catholic Bishops and those who choose not to dignify women’s minds, bodies and souls: your religious “rights” end when my reproductive rights are threatened.

The Religious Right has snagged many proponents in the Pro-Life movement by feeding them twisted ideologies while they sit in the Church pew, pushing their power as ‘Authorities from God’ in the pulpit. Isn’t this in direct violation of nonprofit law? Not exactly. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation

Churches have been actively involved in many recent controversial ballot initiatives and referenda in numerous states across the country. Under the law, this is permissible activity because ballot initiatives are considered to be “legislations” and thus, are lobbying activities, not “political” activity. For example, a priest is allowed to tell his congregation to support a referendum denying equal marriage rights to gay partners, and to include church support or opposition to referenda in church bulletins.

However,

A 501(c)(3) organization, including a church, is allowed to engage only in “insubstantial” lobbying. In other words, a 501(c)(3) could lose its tax-exempt status if it engages in substantial lobbying; however, the definition of “insubstantial” is amorphous.

So maybe the Catholic Bishops aren’t in direct violation of any nonprofit laws, or if they are it would be rather hard to prove, but that means many of congregants donations to religious nonprofits may be spent lobbying and not helping the poor and the needy as the Bible commands. If you are part of the Catholic body (or any religious body), you should be asking where your money is going and get the answer in writing.

Sadly, patriarchal religion doesn’t seem to be stopping when it comes to gaining political ground and supporters and this means neither will the war on women’s health issues. In many religious institutions, the war on women has been waging for thousands of years and the only way to stop it is for women to do a little digging in what their spiritual leaders are saying about their gender.


Years ago, I was a young church member who was “saving myself for marriage” even though I was in my mid-twenties. I voted according to what my minister suggested my morals should be, because I thought that was what a good Christian did. I bought all of what was taught to me: hook, line and sinker. Fortunately, I’m no longer part of that church, nor am I religious, but I didn’t start questioning some of their political endorsements, their narrow ‘moral’ views, or where their money went until long after I quit my membership. I didn’t become a feminist until I was in college, later in my twenties and when I did, I felt there was no other option for me than to leave the church.

I wonder what would happen if more individuals would dig a little bit deeper into the lobbying efforts and financial records of their church. What types of activities would they find and would they support them? For women in particular, I wonder if they would say as I’ve said: Your religious “rights” end when my reproductive rights are threatened.

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