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‘Religious Freedom’ Measure Targeting Women’s Reproductive Rights Goes Down in Flames

President Obama took the reasonable and upright step of extending access to birth control to women under their healthcare plans. It was a simple enough plan; just like vasectomies, and even other tools of sexual health like Viagra, have been covered by insurers for years, women could expected to be treated equally and receive coverage for their own reproductive needs. What Obama may not have expected was that this simple act would end up opening Pandora’s box, and creating a disproportionate backlash from conservatives and some religious sects. Some of the results have been highly regressive and poorly conceived lawmaking efforts like revival of North Dakota’s Measure 3 aka the Religious Liberty Restoration amendment or passage of Arizona’s new laws based on HB 2625 (allowing employers to deny coverage for birth control unless the woman can prove a non-reproductive need for the medication) and SB 1365 (allowing any health care professional to deny various reproductive services based on their religious convictions).

Obama was right to estimate that minor changes to birth control policy would be accepted without much hullabaloo; after all, there had been support from conservatives for birth control mandates prior to Obama’s announcement. For example, in 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that employers with more than 15 employees must cover birth control if they had health insurance plans that covered preventive services and prescription drugs. The Bush administration, via John Ashcroft, had the opportunity to challenge this mandate when they came into power; however, instead Ashcroft simply announced that he planned to keep the mandate in place. The essence of what the Obama administration did beyond that original EEOC mandate was to simply say that women would no longer have to pay deductibles and copays for their birth control. That’s it. There was no earth-shattering change in requirements to what had already been in place.

Like many Republican-backed birth control mandates passed in the states, the Obama administration’s plan included exemptions for any non-profit organization that “has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose.” This meant churches and organizations that serve and employ people of the same religion would not have to comply with the mandate, but religiously-affiliated institutions that employ and serve people from a range of religious backgrounds would need to follow the mandate. After this put many religious conservatives into a tizzy, this mandate was further refined to require health insurers to provide birth control access, bypassing the religiously-affiliated employer. Even this judicious refinement of the original mandate would not stem the tide of fervor from social conservatives.

Ah, but it all seems so innocently naïve now for Obama to assume that conservatives would behave like adults in response to any action he took. As with all things the Obama administration does, conservatives have managed to create scandalous controversy, escalating birth control to a war on religious freedom itself. This dynamic resulted in the ridiculous, dangerous, and little-discussed Religious Liberty Restoration amendment in North Dakota which citizens took to the polls on June 12th to vote on. The amendment stated:

“Government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious liberty. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A burden includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”

The amendment was originally championed by the North Dakota Family Alliance (affiliated with James Dobson’s anti-gay Focus on the Family) who got a petition started for it in 2010. The North Dakota Catholic Alliance lent its support for the measure as well. They were unable to collect sufficient signatures for the initiative to be placed on the ballot, but then in 2011, they successfully met the required number and submitted their petition for this year’s vote.

What makes efforts like Measure 3 in North Dakota so threatening is the broad, sweeping nature of their scope. While Arizona’s laws are egregious, because they allow an individual to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to deny established, safe and necessary medical interventions to others in a discriminatory way, these laws at least applied only in the limited sphere of reproductive healthcare. North Dakota’s law, while certainly aimed at denying women’s reproductive rights, extended this exercise of religious privilege to every area of life. Opponents of the law have generated dozens of examples of potential abuse of the law. For example, an employer could fire a woman who becomes pregnant, because she is unmarried. Healthcare providers could refuse to serve people who are HIV-positive out of a belief that the person is gay. As another example, people who work with abused children are worried about this type of law. Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota stated:

“We are urging a ‘no’ vote on Measure 3,” he says, “because it will seriously undercut protection for children in our state by opening the door for people to claim religious freedom as a justification for maltreatment.”

Harsh discipline of children, and even abuse of spouses, can be argued to be part of one’s religious beliefs in many fundamentalist sects of not only Christianity, but many other fundamentalist religions. Another form of child maltreatment is denial of medical care in favor of faith healing, which courts would have a hard time restricting in light of this amendment. Challenges to laws against polygamy could easily become a consequence which would strike a blow at women’s well-being since polygamy invariably denigrates the status of women. Recently, there was a case in Florida where a teacher told her students to cut and burn themselves to release their demons. This sort of religious quackery would be defensible and the teacher could sue to keep her job if amendments like Measure 3 passed.

So, in the end, it was heartening to see North Dakotans reject Measure 3 by a wide margin of 64.5% to 35.4%. Unfortunately, Arizona continues to have their laws in place restricting women’s reproductive health.  And Alabama actually already has a “religious freedom” amendment not unlike North Dakota’s Measure 3, though so far they are the only state to do so. Other states have Republicans working furiously to expand the definition of religious freedom, in particular so that it restricts women’s freedom. It’s going to take continuous effort by progressives to push back against the determination of these regressive conservatives.

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