Progressive Groups Call on Democrats to Support Religious Freedom


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.”

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.

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