Two major events coincided, making this a big week in the fight for religious freedom in reproductive health, rights and justice.
Federal judges handed down decisions in two separate cases preventing some people’s religious beliefs from blocking other people’s access to insurance coverage of birth control. And the decisions arrived within days of Religious Freedom Day, January 16.
In response, we asked an expert, Frederick Clarkson, his thoughts on religious freedom and the pro-choice movement. Clarkson, a senior research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, is also a journalist and author who has been following politics and religion for four decades.
Q: What do supporters of reproductive rights most need to know now about religious freedom?
A: Religious freedom is central to our identity as Americans, regardless of our backgrounds. Without freedom of religion — which makes free speech, and a free press possible — democracy means nothing. It’s important to dig into the history a bit, because, we learn that religious freedom does not mean what the Christian right says it means.
Religious Freedom Day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson. His definition of religious freedom in the statute was essentially one of religious equality under the law, meaning that one’s religious views would be neither an advantage or disadvantage for a citizen. Historians and even the Supreme Court have acknowledged that the Virginia statute set the definition of religious freedom intended by the framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment. Our ongoing challenge has been to figure out how to apply the values of religious freedom in a pluralistic society.
Q: How have things been changing with regard to religious freedom impacting reproductive issues?
A: The term religious freedom has been hijacked to advance an agenda of the religious right and the Catholic bishops. This has led to conscience clauses and other so-called religious exemptions that have really metastasized. This has meant, thanks largely to the Hobby Lobby decision of the Supreme Court, that sometimes institutions (in this case a corporation) can claim a religious exemption from having to provide reproductive health services (in the case of Hobby Lobby certain contraceptives in their insurance plan) even to people who do not share their religious views. But increasingly, this principle is being extended to individuals, under the rubric of conscience clauses, such as for pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for drugs of which they do not approve. We are seeing a lot of state level legislation on such things, including a package of model legislation called Project Blitz.
It’s kind of a vigilante approach to religious freedom. In other words, “I don’t like the law, so I won’t follow it.” Jefferson would never have accepted this.
Q: What actions would be most effective in fighting for religious freedom that supports reproductive and social justice?
A: We need to reclaim the definition and broader meaning of religious freedom in American history, culture and law. This is one of the central challenges of our time.
One important thing we need to do is to demonstrate that the Christian right does not own the religious point of view on matters of reproductive choice. In fact, very often the religious views of major institutions and individuals such as mainline Protestants and most of organized Judaism are fully pro-choice and see women as moral agents able to make their own decisions.
But it’s not enough in a democracy to have views, religious or otherwise. We need to either express them through participation in public life or abandon the playing field of democracy to those who oppose reproductive freedom, and arguably, religious freedom itself.
We need to get better at using the tools of electoral democracy – as the Christian right has done – increasing voter registration, improving organizing, getting our leaders the training they need to be elected and to hold onto public office. We also need to be smart about developing good answers to the other side’s arguments –– including those about religious freedom.
To do this, we may need to recognize and drop what hasn’t worked, consider fresh ideas, and set new priorities. But the good news is the Christian right knows their numbers are small –– and that they rely on being the best-organized faction in politics. We know it now, too, and need to make the necessary adjustments to preserve and advance our most deeply held values in our time.