Religious Liberty

Rev. Angela Herrera

Sermon preached at First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 16, 2014

People are freaking out. Have you been watching the news lately? Have you seen the stories about all these so-called religious liberty laws? All these laws that would allow businesses to refuse service to certain people, or to be exempt from certain laws, supposedly for religious reasons.

The one that got the most press recently was in Arizona. Oh, Arizona. Our embarrassing neighbor. Have you heard about what they were trying to do? The state legislature in Arizona—both house and senate—had passed a bill which would modify Arizona law so that a business could refuse service to gay and lesbian clients based on the business owner’s religious beliefs. People in favor of the law used the example of a homophobic bakery owner being asked to provide a wedding cake for a same sex couple. Well, they didn’t use the phrase homophobic. The proponents of the law used the phrase “deeply held religious beliefs.” As in: the bakery should not have to make a cake that could later be used in a way that is not compatible with the owner’s “deeply held religious beliefs.”

Now, in our society, business owners are not entitled to decide how their goods will be used, once someone has purchased them. If we go down that path, it could get pretty crazy. Where would we draw the line? What about other food used in religious rituals? What about romantic greeting cards? What if a mosque wants to buy an air conditioner from a cooling company owned by someone who says their religious belief is anti-Islamic?

Critics pointed out that the law was too broad, and not only discriminated against gay people, it also could be used to discriminate against other groups. And the same arguments have in fact been used for other kinds of discrimination.

These days many of us are too young to remember how religious arguments were also used to fight for Jim Crow laws, for segregation and for the prohibition of interracial marriages… like mine! (Under the logic of the Arizona legislation, I could have been denied a cake).

Religious arguments were made to prevent women from voting, and to protect the institution of slavery. Proponents of religious freedom laws today are downplaying those possibilities. Instead they are very focused on three things they see as the biggest threats to their religious sensibilities now: gay rights, abortion, and birth control. We’ll get back to the others in a minute. In Arizona, the target was gays and lesbians.

And so it happened that this bill passed the legislature and landed on Governor Jan Brewer’s desk, for her to sign into law. Now Jan Brewer is not known for being compassionate or loving diversity. She’s the governor who made news a few years ago for a photo that was taken of her shaking her finger in President Obama’s face as she gave him a piece of her mind relating to their differences over immigration—and Obama has deported more people than any other president. Jan Brewer is known for putting teeth behind the idea of reverse immigration, where you make life so painful, dangerous, and deprived for undocumented immigrant families that—in theory—they will self deport. The theory is that whatever situation prompted the families to leave their home and communities and risk their lives and their children’s lives to cross the border, with a little effort we can top it and get them to make the reverse trip.

And Arizona is the state that banned cultural studies from its public schools, including colleges, a few years ago. No more Latino Studies or African American studies. Can you imagine? That’s Jan Brewer. But when this bill landed on her desk, it gave her pause. It turns out that what makes the conservative religious base happy is not necessarily good for the state. By the time the bill made it to Jan Brewer’s desk, she was hearing a lot of push back, especially from the business community. There was the threat of a Superbowl committee boycott—the Superbowl is supposed to take place in Glendale, Arizona next year. Prominent people in her own party, including Mitt Romney and John McCain, spoke out against it, and even some of the legislators who had voted for it did an about face, saying they had been rushed and had made a mistake.

So she vetoed it. Thank goodness.

Now Arizona isn’t the only state to consider a bill like this. Bills about the same core issue have been proposed in at least 24 other states. So far many have been rejected—either by voters or by legislatures that refused to take them up—and none that I know of have been signed into law. But the trend is striking.

Not only that, there are other kinds of religious liberty cases going on. In just nine days, on March 25th, the US Supreme court is going to hear arguments in two cases known as the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases. The cases are a reaction to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which stipulates that health insurance, has to cover contraceptives. In other words, the law includes a contraceptive guarantee, meaning if you purchase health insurance or receive it as part of your compensation package at your job, you are guaranteed to have access to the healthcare that addresses the primary concern for women of childbearing age: when and if to become pregnant. Now, when this part of the Affordable Care Act was first rolled out, it caused controversy with Catholic institutions such as universities, hospitals, and charities. So the Obama administration modified the policy. Now no churches, religious orders, or religiously affiliated charities, have to directly provide the coverage. They fill out a form stating their exemption. Then, they don’t pay for it, and they do not have to be involved in the process. But their employees can still access contraceptive coverage—if it is in accord with the employee’s religious beliefs.

Many of you will have heard about another Supreme Court case, filed by a group of nuns who run a nursing home, called the Little Sisters of the Poor. They too were allowed an exemption as religious non-profit. What they objected to was even signing the form to get the exemption. When the news showed the Little Sisters of the Poor, it showed all these smiling little old ladies wearing habits, tending to the patients in their care. But these ladies are about as passive as a pack of Rottweilers. They did not want to sign a form and they took that all the way to the Supreme Court.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods are a different kind of situation. These are not non-profit religious organizations. They aren’t churches or religious universities. They are two for-profit corporations that employ people of different faiths. Conestoga Wood has 2100 employees. Hobby Lobby has 21,000. But they too are refusing to provide the guaranteed contraceptive coverage. They are arguing that they are morally opposed to the use of certain contraceptives and that the law violates their religious liberty.

In both the Arizona case and the Supreme Court cases, we have people claiming that their corporation or business, as an entity, is entitled to religious liberty and that they should be exempt from laws that they disagree with on religious grounds. Religious liberty is a core American value, and it’s a core value of Unitarian Universalism, too. It’s represented in the mural in our sanctuary.

Respect for many religious paths. Respect for each person’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning. When we hear about legislation like the one in Arizona, which would allow businesses to refuse service to certain people based on the owner’s religious judgments, we are uneasy. We know immediately that this feels wrong, problematic. But by cloaking their arguments in the language of religious liberty, the proponents of these laws seem to be engaging our own values.

That’s why I felt it was important to talk about this from the pulpit today. We are engaged in a kind of a political jiu jitsu—with religious and social conservatives using the language of freedom to constrain the choices of others. It is a critical moment in the struggle for civil rights and, within civil rights, for reproductive rights. The media has made it sound as though these cases are about religious liberty vs. gay rights, or about religious liberty vs. women’s health. But that is not what these are about. These laws and these cases are about for-profit corporations claiming to have civil rights that trump the civil rights of individuals. They are about whether we will have religious liberty for only some people—meaning the owners of businesses—or for everybody.

Religious liberty dictates that the local baker and the CEOs of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods are allowed to express their views, but not to impose their religious views on you or me. We each have a right not to have their views imposed upon us. The baker does not get to plan or un-plan your marriage ceremony, and your boss doesn’t get to come into your bedroom. The fact is, religious liberty does not mean the freedom to do whatever you want. The fact is, in order for us to coexist in our diverse society, my religious liberty has to end at the tip of your nose. The law of our land is that business owners can decide what to sell, but they cannot decide to sell it to only certain people in society. That’s why we don’t have white only lunch-counters any more. And the law of our land is that businesses cannot pick and choose which laws to obey. Everyone plays by the same rules because otherwise the playing field is skewed, and suddenly you have women, working for disproportionately low salaries for a bunch of CEO’s who are disproportionately male, having their access to contraception impeded.

Don’t get me started.

Oh, it’s too late.

Let’s look at it another way: How many of you would describe yourself as a corporation? Nobody? Right. Corporations don’t go to church. They don’t light candles, sing hymns, or meditate. In and of themselves, corporations are not entitled to religious liberty because they cannot be practitioners of a religion. Corporations are not people. Same with businesses. We do business. We are not business. Religious liberty belongs to human beings. Not for-profit corporations. Corporations cannot be equal to individuals because they hold more power than individuals.

Fred Getty, a Mormon professor at Brigham Young University, is one of many people who have filed Amicus briefs in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases. He points out that if the court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, it is in essence, interfering in religion by picking favorites. It’s saying to the corporation “we favor your beliefs over the beliefs of your employees”. This is really important because the implications of these cases go way beyond contraception. If companies can refuse to provide—or even allow contraceptive coverage, they could refuse to allow coverage on other health services that they protest on religious grounds. They could refuse to allow blood transfusions, for example, or the latest cancer treatments that were developed through stem cell technology. Imagine having a hard-to-treat cancer and hearing that your insurance won’t cover your best treatment option because of your employer’s religious claims.

And once the healthcare law has been rejected on religious grounds, what’s to stop companies from rejecting other laws they disagree with? What’s to stop them from firing employees who get divorced? Or who choose to live together with their partner without getting married? Or anything else they had a religiously-framed moral objection to?

If it is not decided wisely, this case could open the door to a landslide of consequences. And it could undermine individual rights. But I am especially concerned about the impact on women and families. This year, I am a member of the Faith and Reproductive Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. There are about twenty-five of us in the institute: faith and secular leaders from across the country, who the Center for American Progress brought together in January to kick off a year of study and leadership on reproductive rights. I used to think reproductive rights meant access to abortion. In fact, I applied to the institute after last fall’s abortion referendum in Albuquerque—I was so mad at out of state activists trying to prevent women from making private decisions with their doctors. So you can thank those antiabortion protestors for my new, now national level of leadership on the issue.

But when I got to Washington DC for our initial training, we spent a large portion of time on the issue of religious liberty, and in particular on the Supreme Court cases. The thing is that before a woman can make any kind of meaningful decision about her reproductive health, whether it is to avoid or terminate a pregnancy or to become a mother, she has to have access to her full range of options to begin with. She cannot make these decisions without having real options available. And the real life impact of these Supreme Court cases, in which employers want to keep contraceptive coverage away from women (and not just female employees but the female partners of employees, as well as the adolescent female children of employees) is that access to birth control is impeded. And the result of impeded access to birth control is more unintended pregnancies, more women’s lives derailed, and more women facing serious health consequences from not having access to, say, the hormones in birth control, if that is what they need for other health reasons.

But where are the voices of women in the public conversation about this? They have been few and far between in the media. We women need to speak up with our stories. In fact, I’ve got a story of my own where another person’s claim to religious liberty threatened to derail or at least seriously complicate my life.

Once, back when I was a part time student and the mother of a three-year-old and an infant, my husband and I experienced a birth control failure. This is more personal detail than I’d usually share with you from up here but it’s a relevant story and it is really important that we get clear about what we’re talking about in these cases. We experienced a birth control failure. I’m not going to go into detail except to say that we knew immediately that we were in trouble. I called the midwife who had delivered my son a few months earlier, and she phoned in a prescription for the morning after pill. This was not a prescription for the abortion pill, which causes a woman to miscarry. This was a dose of hormones to prevent a pregnancy from being established in the first place. And you better believe that first thing in the morning, I got the babies up, fed, and dressed, buckled them into their car seats and booked it down to the pharmacy to pick that up as soon as they opened. The sooner you take it the more effective it is, and I didn’t want to take any chances. But when I got there, the pharmacist—a big stern looking man in his fifties—informed me that he would not fill the prescription for me, because he felt it was immoral. If only I’d had a dirty diaper in my hand at just that moment… I had a mind to launch one right through that Walgreens drive-up pharmacy window. Instead, I informed the pharmacist that I would be filling that prescription. I instructed him to transfer it to the next closest pharmacy—four miles down the road. And luckily I had a car. And luckily my kids were healthy enough to lug around on errands that day. And luckily I didn’t have to hurry into an unforgiving job. And luckily the next pharmacist did agree to fill it. Because if any of those things had gone wrong, I could have had my third baby in four years. And then what? Would I have been able to continue with my studies at community college, which led to a scholarship to a university, which led to admission and a scholarship at Harvard, which led me to become your minister? Would I be standing here this morning? I cannot say with certainty that I would. And all because a pharmacist disagreed with my midwife’s prescription for emergency contraception. His claim to religious liberty did not stop at the tip of my nose that day. It barged right into the most personal part of my life.

The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases would make that kind of thing much more prevalent. Later, because my insurance did cover contraception, I was able to get one of the most reliable forms of birth control possible. If I had not had insurance, it would have cost too much up front for my family to afford. I wouldn’t have been able to get it. I could have ended up back in the same boat. The morning after pill, and the highly effective contraception I got later, are both forms of contraception that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are refusing to cover for their employees. That’s the kind of thing we are talking about. Real women’s lives. Real families. Not religious liberty vs women, not religious liberty vs gays. But religious liberty for a few vs for all.

We are talking about access: to the marketplace and full participation in society, and to essential healthcare.

We are talking about religious liberty that does not belong only to people who want to restrict options, but also to people whose faith allows for many options, and who want to be the authors of their own lives.

As a faith leader, I believe deeply in your right to be the author of your own life. I honor your inherent worth and dignity and your capacity for moral reasoning. I respect that you and you alone know what is best for you. That’s why I’m up here. I’m glad I was able to get here. And I’ll do whatever I can to ensure that others—whether they are male or female, gay or straight—can freely pursue their lives and their callings, too.

Amber Royster