Commentary Religion

Why the USCCB’s “Religious Freedom” Argument Is a Lie

Bridgette Dunlap

The recent Huffington Post article by Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us quite a bit about the veracity of the USCCB’s claims that religious freedom is under attack in the United States.

The recent Huffington Post article by Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us quite a bit about the veracity of the USCCB’s claims that religious freedom is under attack in the United States.

Sister Walsh portrays Catholic institutions as just wanting to be able to give away services as acts of charity without government interference. But the truth is Catholic institutions (or those who claim to speak for them) are demanding they be able to participate in the market without having to adhere to the same standards as anyone else selling products or services, and to do it with government funding to boot.  

The idea that some religious organizations should not have to meet the general standard has been widely accepted, but Sister Walsh finds the resulting exemption to the contraceptive coverage mandate, “miserly.” As the USCCB has told us repeatedly, the issue isn’t contraception, but religious freedom. The problem, they claim, is just that too few Catholic-affiliated institutions are exempt from the HHS regulation.

As Bishop William Lori, of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty put it to Congress:

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This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government.  This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.

Now, there is a first-grader in plaid somewhere inside of me who hesitates to say this, but:  this is a big lie. I know this is a lie because I read the USCCB’s Statement on Religious Freedom.

In the Statement, the Bishops quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who wrote that, “[a]n unjust law is no law at all.” I’ve found the frequency with which opponents of the contraception mandate quote Dr. King very odd, given that he supported family planning and once accepted an award from Planned Parenthood, but I didn’t comprehend what was going on until I read the Statement, in which the Bishops go on to say:

It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law.  An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices.  If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them.  (emphasis mine).

The core of the bishops’ opposition to the contraceptive mandate is not that the exception is too narrow and will thus force Catholics to violate their beliefs. Rather, the law is unjust in and of itself because no one should use birth control. The Bishops keep quoting Dr. King because, to them, government regulation of even completely secular institutions aimed at making birth control more accessible is akin to a law enforcing racial segregation. Birth control is that bad, so an exception from a law making it more available will not do.

The stories behind Sister Walsh’s claim that “Catholic foster care and adoption services were forced to close” illustrate this point as well. Bishops in Illinois refused to negotiate for an exception to the state law banning discrimination against same-sex couples because, as one Bishop put it, “It would have been seen as: We’re going to compromise on the principle as long as we get our exception.” The problem wasn’t that Catholic agencies might have to serve gay couples — it was that any agency would. 

Furthermore, Catholic agencies in Boston and San Francisco placed children with same-sex couples voluntarily until the Bishops made them stop. What the end of Catholic adoption services tells us is not that religious freedom is under attack, but that Bishops want to impose their will on the general population and don’t respect the religious freedom of Catholics working on the ground.

The Bishops may reject the choices made by voters and their elected representatives and lament that Catholics use birth control and form families in violation of their commands, but this does not mean their religious freedoms are being violated. Catholic bishops have increasingly looked to shape the law to control behavior through coercion where they have lost their power to persuade, but the ability to impose religion on others is not a right the First Amendment protects. 

Sister Walsh may be correct, however, when she suggests the USCCB’s “religious freedom campaign” may ultimately be good for our nation. The “campaign” is showing Catholics, and the one in ten Americans who consider themselves  ex-Catholics, just how powerful the hierarchy that claims to speak for us is. It is showing us the bishops’ views are often extremist, lacking in compassion and disconnected from our values.  From the Nuns on the Bus to Melinda Gates we are hearing from other voices more and more. 

I’m starting to think there’s some kind of Catholic awakening going on. 

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.

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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.

News Law and Policy

Judge Blocks Mississippi ‘Religious Freedom’ Law, Calling it Discriminatory

Nicole Knight Shine

"But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It must be enjoined," U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote.

A U.S. District Judge temporarily blocked a sweeping and controversial Mississippi “religious freedom” law late Thursday, calling the legislation “arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”

“The State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote in a 60-page decision issued hours before HB 1523 was set to go into effect.

Reeves ruled that the bill violated the First and 14th Amendments by allowing individuals, religious organizations, and some government employees with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to deny services to, as Reeves wrote, “lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons,” potentially gutting certain privileges and legal protections—such as those stemming from the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The bill was authored by Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Hinds), who had called the high court’s legalization of marriage equality “in direct conflict with God’s design for marriage as set forth in the Bible,” as the Washington Post reported.

“Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together,” Reeves wrote in his decision.”But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It must be enjoined.”

The legislation, known as the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in April, after clearing the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

The measure enshrined three religiously held tenets: that gender is determined at birth, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sex is “properly reserved” for heterosexual marriage. It determined that housing, employment, and adoption decisions could be made based on those religious beliefs.

A swift national and state-level outcry followed the passage of HB 1523, with 80 CEOs, among others, calling for its repeal as “bad for our employees and bad for business,” according to the court documents. The law had been challenged in Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant.

The state has not said whether it will appeal Reeves’ ruling. If the state does not appeal, the temporary order becomes permanent after another hearing.

“I am grateful that the court has blocked this divisive law,” said Rev. Susan Hrostowski, an Episcopal priest and a plaintiff in the Campaign for Southern Equality case. “As a member of the LGBT community and as minister of the Gospel, I am thankful that justice prevailed.”

The injunction Thursday follows a ruling earlier this week by Reeves, a 2010 Obama appointee, which blocked a provision in HB 1523 allowing circuit clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as the Washington Post reported. Twenty months prior, Reeves had struck down the state’s statutory and constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.