Commentary Religion

Fortnight For Freedom Is a Dangerous Sham. Let’s Celebrate Real Religious Freedom for All People

What we know, and what the bishops missed, is that religious freedom deserves more than a fortnight—and it’s about protecting more than the interests of a small group of men whose demands don’t reflect the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent.

This summer, Americans of every faith and of none have been subjected to the propaganda machine of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. By all measures, the fortnight fell flat. There was no religious persecution to decry; Catholics were too busy living their lives and planning their summer vacations to show up en masse for the bishops’ rallies; and the Affordable Care Act, the threat to religious liberty (according to the bishops), was upheld by the Supreme Court.

What we know, and what the bishops missed, is that religious freedom deserves more than a fortnight — and it’s about protecting more than the interests of a small group of men whose demands don’t reflect the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent.

Throughout history, good people — religious and secular — have been harried, hunted and harmed because of their religion or in the name of someone else’s. Irish Catholics lost the right to worship, and many their lives and livelihoods, to the English crown merely because they were Catholic. European Jews, for no reason other than their faith, were persecuted for centuries, and the Shoah remains an appalling testament to the capacity of human cruelty and religious repression. But religious persecution isn’t only history. If you adhere to the Baha’i faith in Iran today, you live in fear, monitored by a government that has a history of arresting, torturing and killing members of your faith. In Indonesia, the refusal to confess a belief in God will land you, badly beaten, in prison—in 2012.

Today’s American Catholic bishops would have us think they are the latest victims of religious persecution. Their claims denigrate the suffering of those who know the true meaning of that term. A few powerful conservative religious leaders, not joined by the majority of their faith or even of all their fellow bishops, have opened their coffers to sue the government to allow them to force others to live by their rules and to deny them what everyone else is guaranteed by our society. This isn’t about religious liberty. It’s a sham. And a dangerous one.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

It’s been said that perception is everything, and it’s a lesson some American Catholic bishops have taken to heart. Claiming religious persecution and wrapping yourself in a flag on the Fourth of July in an election year is sure to get you in the paper. It doesn’t make what you’re saying true. Having failed to convince Catholics, clergy and laity, that the use of birth control is a moral offense, the bishops have set their sights on the law that guarantees healthcare to all Americans, and some have also openly criticized the president who signed it. This is what the bishops’ campaign is really about. You can be sure their bogus claims about religious liberty will be fanned by those who share these and other more political and partisan concerns, especially as the election draws nearer. They’ll say it’s about religious freedom, but it’s up to all of us not to fall prey to the tawdry abuse of a principle that is dear to us.

It is the rights and health of men and women of every faith and of none that hang in the balance with the bishops’ latest grandstanding. When the demands of a powerful religious minority are privileged over the rights of every citizen in a society, the results are never good. We can expect the same if we acquiesce to the bishops’ demands. 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 or provenance 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 about.

This isn’t a battle for religious freedom — at least in the way the bishops and their allies have styled it. Religious liberty is, and should be, sacred to us all. Equal justice under the law should be more than a slogan. We know that one’s conscience must lead each person to a judgment about how to act, and that conscience must not be subverted by someone else’s demand. It’s up to our leaders in government to ensure that these principles, the freedoms each American is guaranteed, are not compromised for a political gain by an influential minority — even, perhaps especially, when that minority claims a religious mantle.

For far too long, too many people have enjoyed neither the freedom to believe as they choose nor the freedom from living according to others’ beliefs. On Independence Day, we recall the American promise of both of these freedoms—for every single person in this country. It would be a shame to throw away this ideal just to appease a few disgruntled clerics who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.

News Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.