Religious Liberty: Individuals, Corporations, and Reproductive Health
March 2014. This month Kristen Walling, our UCC Public Policy Fellow, reflects on the concept of religious liberty in light of recent Supreme Court cases related to reproductive heath and the Affordable Care act.
While reproductive rights have been the center of heated political discussion for decades, the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with provisions expanding women’s access to preventive health care has refueled the debate. Leaders in the United Church of Christ strongly support the preventive services that health insurance plans are now required to provide women, including:
- Breastfeeding support and counseling
- Domestic violence screening
- Gestational diabetes screening
- HIV & STI screening and counseling
- Well woman visits
The mandate already allows for some exceptions and accommodations for religious employers and faith-affiliated institutions that object to offering this coverage. However, some for-profit corporations are also seeking special accommodations under the law.
On March 25 the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases brought by private, for-profit businesses claiming that the contraceptive mandate in the ACA is a violation of their religious liberty: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. The companies are hoping to make the case that they should not have to pay for insurance plans which cover services and care they find objectionable. In reality, this guise of “religious liberty” has potentially dangerous and far-reaching implications if private businesses were to be afforded exemptions from the contraceptive mandate.
This is not simply a question of, “Do employers have to pay for women’s birth control,” but begs the question of where the line—a line which has already been negotiated—would have to be redrawn. If the Supreme Court were to agree with private business owners, it would mean someone’s boss could impose his or her personal religious values on his or her employees or employees’ families, who may be receiving insurance coverage through the employee.
Allowing employers to insert themselves into their employees’ medical decisions under the guise of religious liberty leads down a slippery slope. What other medical services could be denied if employers find them objectionable—vaccines, medicine, surgical procedures? Any medical decision affecting a woman, regardless of its nature, should be made between a woman and her health care provider, not a woman and her employer.
The General Synod of the United Church of Christ has affirmed and re-affirmed since 1971 a woman’s right to follow her own faith and conscience in determining when and if she should have children. Additionally, General Synod has supported a breadth of measures to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, expand access to family planning services, and create healthy and responsible sexual persons and relationships (see General Synods VIII, IX, XI, XII, XIII, XVI, XVII, and XVIII). Supporting the ACA’s contraceptive mandate is in line with the our General Synod’s strong history of supporting women’s autonomy and health, reproductive rights, and healthy sexuality.
The preventive services mandated by the ACA guarantee that women, regardless of their income, can access the basic health care options that work best for them. The law has already struck a reasonable balance between protecting women’s health needs and religious liberty, while also allowing accommodations for religious institutions. In the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases, the Supreme Court should uphold the law as it already exists, protecting the religious liberty and self determination of all individuals, and not jeopardizing access to basic health care in the name of corporate religious liberty.