News Politics

Progressive Groups Call on Democrats to Support Religious Freedom

Jodi Jacobson

Progressive religious and human rights groups today called on the Democratic National Committee to "stand up for people of faith and [of] no faith and not allow conservative politicians and religious leaders to redefine the meaning of religious liberty."

Progressive religious and human rights groups today gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and called on the Democratic National Committee to “stand up for people of faith and [of] no faith and not allow conservative politicians and religious leaders to redefine the meaning of religious liberty.”

Both during and since the debate in Congress that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), groups that make up the religious right–including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and fundamentalist evangelical groups–have strenuously asserted that requiring insurers to cover primary reproductive health care without a co-pay represents an infringement on their religious freedom. These claims grew louder despite an accommodation by the Department of Health and Human Services to exempt churches and other places of worship from one aspect of the ACA, which requires insurance companies to offer coverage of contraception without a co-pay. These groups also object to marriage equality, federal funding of reproductive health care for low-income women and other effortst to expand the rights of women and minorities.

Members of other religious traditions–progressive Catholics, Protestant, and Jewish groups among them–as well as women’s health and human rights groups, have pushed back on the notion that, for example, the birth control benefit violates religious freedom, underscoring that the real meaning of religious freedom is based on the protection of the individual conscience.

In a panel today, members of the Coalition for Liberty & Justice, which includes Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Charlotte-based Freedom Center for Social Justice, responded to what they noted was increasingly heated rhetoric on these issues, called on Democrats to “defend individual conscience on issues of marriage rights and access to reproductive health, while standing up to conservatives who would restrict these important issues to any one, narrow faith-based viewpoint.”

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Their goal is to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith, avoiding policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.  According to the coalition, each of the participating groups strives to influence policies important to their constituencies, informed by their own political perspectives, faith traditions, and community priorities.

“The freedom to follow one’s conscience is at the center of our Catholic tradition because it affirms each individual’s moral agency,” said Sara Hutchinson, the domestic program director at Catholics for Choice.

The freedom to decide what is right and act upon that decision does not come in Democratic or Republican varieties. It exists in the human experience of believers and nonbelievers of all ideologies. Those shaping the debates and setting policy on access to reproductive healthcare services should respect the consciences of those seeking to do the best thing for themselves and their families—Catholic and non-Catholic, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican. Protecting our freedom requires nothing less.

“The principle of religious freedom demands that we be able to make personal decisions about things like healthcare, family planning, and marriage based on our own personal needs, moral judgment and religious beliefs,” said Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“We are now seeing this very principle repeatedly under attack by religious and political leaders who seek to legislate one particular faith view into law, while claiming their efforts are meant to defend religious freedom. Those of us who have fought for years to secure this right are not fooled by the rhetoric, and other people of faith should not be fooled either.” 

“Religious liberty is a very complex subject but one thing is clear: decisions about birth control and abortion should be a matter of individual conscience, not restricted by institutional policy. Individuals—not employers and certainly not government—should be responsible for making decisions about birth control or ending a pregnancy. Religious institutions that demand that their views be adopted as the law of the land are, in fact, seeking to limit the religious liberty of individuals. That many of those groups then claim their own liberties are infringed is the rankest hypocrisy,” said Rev. Harry Knox, President and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

“The thing that makes us mighty as a nation is the thing that makes us complex and that is freedom,” said Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls of the Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte. “In my Christian tradition, God gave free will and it is that very freedom that challenges and provokes in ways that lets the best of our beliefs shine through. Our willingness to lovingly grapple with and provide space for the ‘otherness’ in our neighbors is the way we exhibit the best of who we are, both as people of faith and as a nation.”

The fight over “religious freedom”–for whom and under what conditions–will almost certainly continue through the fall election season and beyond, as the religious right turns to the courts in their quest to impose a universal interpretation of religion and morality on a diverse nation.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

News Health Systems

What Happens When a Catholic-Run Clinic Comes to Your Local Walgreens?

Amy Littlefield

“It causes us great concern when we think about vulnerable populations ... [who] may need to use these clinics for things like getting their contraception prescribed and who would never think that when they went into a Walgreens they would be restricted by Catholic doctrine,” Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, told Rewire.

One of the largest Catholic health systems is set to begin running health clinics inside 27 Walgreens stores in Missouri and Illinois next week. The deal between Walgreens and SSM Health has raised concerns from public interest groups worried that care may be compromised by religious doctrine.

Catholic health systems generally follow directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, contraception, tubal ligations, vasectomies, and fertility treatments.

“We are concerned that the clinics will likewise be required to follow the [directives], thereby severely curtailing access to important reproductive health services, information, and referrals,” MergerWatch, the National Health Law Program, and the American Civil Liberties Unions of Illinois and Missouri wrote in a letter to Walgreens on Wednesday. They also sent a letter to SSM Health.

In a statement emailed to Rewire, Walgreens said its relationship with SSM Health “will not have any impact on any of our current clinic or pharmacy policies and procedures.”

SSM Health emailed a statement saying it “will continue to offer the same services that are currently available at Walgreens Healthcare Clinics today.” If a patient needs services “that are beyond the scope of what is appropriate for a retail clinic setting, they will be referred to a primary care physician or other provider of their choice,” the statement read.

A spokesperson for SSM Health demurred when Rewire asked if that would include referrals for abortion care.

“I’ve got to check this part out, my apologies, this is one that hadn’t occurred to me,” said Jason Merrill, the spokesperson.

Merrill later reiterated SSM Health’s statement that it would continue to offer the same services.

Catholic health systems have in recent years expanded control over U.S. hospitals, with one in six acute-care hospital beds now in a Catholic-owned or -affiliated facility. Patients in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying, denied tubal ligations, and refused abortion care despite conditions like brain cancer.

Catholic health systems have also expanded into the broader landscape of outpatient services, raising new questions about how religion could influence other forms of care.

“The whole health system is transforming itself with more and more health care being delivered outside the hospital,” Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, told Rewire. “So we are looking carefully to make sure that the religious restrictions that have been such a problem for reproductive health care at Catholic hospitals are not now transferred to these drug store clinics or to urgent care centers or free-standing emergency rooms.”

Walgreens last year announced a similar arrangement with the Catholic health system Providence Health & Services to bring up to 25 retail clinics to Oregon and Washington. After expressing concerns about the deal, the ACLU of Washington said it received assurances from both Walgreens and Providence that services at those clinics would not be affected by religious doctrine.

Meanwhile, the major urgent care provider CityMD recently announced a partnership with CHI Franciscan Health–which is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives–to open urgent care centers in Washington state.

“We’re seeing [Catholic health systems] going into the urgent care business and into the primary care business and in accountable care organizations, where they are having an influence on the services that are available to the public and to consumers,” Susan Berke Fogel, director of reproductive health at the National Health Law Program, told Rewire.

GoHealth Urgent Care, which describes itself as “one of the fastest growing urgent care companies in the U.S.,” announced an agreement this year with Dignity Health to bring urgent care centers to California’s Bay Area. Dignity Health used to be called Catholic Healthcare West, but changed its name in 2012.

“This is another pattern that we’ve seen of Catholic health plans and health providers changing their names to things that don’t sound so Catholic,” Lois Uttley said.

 

In the letters sent Wednesday, the National Health Law Program and other groups requested meetings with Walgreens and SSM Health to discuss concerns about the potential influence of religion on the clinics.

“It causes us great concern when we think about vulnerable populations, we think about low-income people… people who… may need to use these clinics for things like getting their contraception prescribed and who would never think that when they went into a Walgreens they would be restricted by Catholic doctrine,” Lorie Chaiten, director of the Reproductive Rights Project of the ACLU of Illinois, told Rewire.

The new clinics in Walgreens will reportedly be called “SSM Health Express Clinics at Walgreens.” According to SSM Health’s website, its initials “[pay] tribute” to the Sisters of St. Mary.

“We are fairly forthcoming with the fact that we are a mission-based health care organization,” Merrill told Rewire. “That’s something we embrace. I don’t think it’s anything we would hide.”

 

Tell us your story. Have religious restrictions affected your ability to access health care? Email littlefield.amy@rewire.news

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