Using “Religious Liberty” to Hide Religious Overreach

We have been hearing plenty about “religious liberty” lately. Now let’s see who’s using the term “religious liberty” in a novel way, trying to conceal a campaign of religious overreach.

The issue has to do with the faith-based legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Recently, a Missouri mining and manufacturing holding company, O’Brien Industrial Holdings, filed a lawsuit against the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The lawsuit challenges the ACA employer requirement to include birth control coverage in employees’ health insurance. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed an amicus brief supporting the ACA contraception rule. The brief examines the O’Brien complaint and considers the arguments in light of modern legal history.

Even though O’Brien is a secular business, the company maintains that the birth control rule violates its religious liberty—a claim that does not stand up to deeper examination. First of all, workers earn their employer-sponsored health insurance. The insurance belongs to the worker like any other earned benefit, such as salary and pension; it is as much a worker’s personal property as a pay check—the employer’s religion doesn’t belong there. After all, workers may well have different and personal moral understandings about access to birth control and no judge, politician, or office boss has any business barging in.

Moreover, a look back at recent history shows two things. First, similar laws in New York State and California have prevailed in state-level legal challenges. And second, as described in the ACLU brief, a business cannot use religious liberty as an excuse to practice religious discrimination.

In 1966, three African-American customers, denied service in a South Carolina restaurant, sued for discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act. The restaurant owner claimed his faith required that the races be kept apart and that the Civil Rights Act violated his religious liberty. The owner lost and rightly so. Ten years later, Virginia’s Roanoke Valley Christian Schools added a “head of household” salary supplement to the pay of married men—not women. When sued under the Equal Pay Act, the schools offered another religious liberty defense, asserting that their faith imposed different expectations for married men. They lost, too. And in the 1980’s, the religiously affiliated Bob Jones University of South Carolina relied on faith teachings to ban inter-racial dating and marriage under threat of student expulsion. A lawsuit followed and the school lost. In all these cases, the courts agreed: Each person has a right to hold and express a private religious belief, and is allowed to act on those beliefs, but only up to a point. Religious liberty does not exempt a person or organization from respecting the civil rights of others; religious liberty does not allow for religious discrimination.

You see, the ACA is about insurance coverage; it is not asking anyone to use birth control. And the worker earns the insurance and owns it—the employer’s religion is secondary. Yes, O’Brien’s human resources office will carry a tiny responsibility here— processing paper that has the words, “birth control” written on it, but that concern is minor compared to the moral standing of the employee who privately decides to rely on prescription birth control for basic preventive health care and family planning. What is more, the employer bears no additional cost by including birth control coverage. An insurer actually saves money when a policy includes birth control, as opposed to spending more on care when a policy does not. Bottom line: Your boss does not belong in your medical decisions. A court recently ruled against O’Brien, whose lawyers say they will appeal.

My faith, along with many others, has long recognized that birth control, including emergency contraception, are critical health and economic concerns for many American women and their families. Our denominations have long affirmed women should be able to get birth control and we are heartened to see it available just like any other preventive prescription. Religiously-motivated lawsuits, like the one brought by O’Brien Industrial Holdings, a mining company, are intended to make it harder for women to get birth control, which is all the more tragic during these challenging economic times when many families lack the income to make ends meet.

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  • steven-earl-salmony
    1. For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably and pseudoscientifically viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature, somehow disconnected from the population dynamics of other evolved species on Earth. The possible causes of human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure and numerous, so they have said for many too many years, that an adequate understanding of the cause of human population growth, much less a strategy to address the emerging and converging ecological problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species, has been assumed to be unapproachable. Their preternatural grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of human population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers ad infinitum, and like the endless expansion of the global economy, without adverse impacts. The dogmatic adherence of these politically correct experts to erroneous, unscientific theory regarding automatic population stabilization around the midpoint of Century XXI and a benign demographic transition to a good life for the human community at large cannot be accepted any longer as if it is based upon the best available evidence.
    2. Recent scientific evidence appears to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers is knowable as a natural phenomenon. Despite all the misleading, intellectually dishonest and deliberately deceptive ‘scientific research’ to the contrary, Homo sapiens can be shown to be, and now seen, as a species that is a part of and definitely not separate from the natural world we inhabit. Experts in politics, economics and demography have consciously fostered and continue obdurately to countenance a perilous disconnect between ecological science and political economy. Perhaps politics, economics and demography are themselves disciplines that are fundamentally disconnected from science. They appear to have more in common with ideology rather than science. To suggest as many too many politicians, economists and demographers have been conveniently doing that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics has so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems wrongheaded and dangerous.
    3. According to research of Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D., and David Pimentel, Ph.D., global population growth of the human species is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and the recent, skyrocketing growth in absolute global human numbers gives rise to the misconception or mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more. Data indicate that the world’s human population grows by approximately 2% per year. All segments of it grow by about two percent. Every year there are more people with brown eyes and more people with blue ones; more people who are tall as well as more short people. It also means that there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like the well-fed segment of the population. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.
    4. Hopfenberg’s and Pimentel’s research suggests that the spectacularly successful efforts of humankind to increase food production in order to feed a growing population has resulted and continues to result in even greater human population numbers worldwide. The perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a widely shared and consensually validated misperception, a denial both of the physical reality and the space-time dimension, a colossal misunderstanding. If people are starving at a given moment of time, increasing food production and then distributing it cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without food they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late. Even so, this realization does not mean human starvation is inevitable.
    5. Consider that the population dynamics of humankind is not biologically different from, but essentially common to the population dynamics of other species. Human organisms, non-human organisms and even microorganisms have similar population dynamics. In all cases the governing relationship between food supply and population numbers of any living thing is this: food is independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. We do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food as we do in many “civilized” human communities today because non-human species and what we call “primitive” human communities are not engaged in food production. Please note that among tribes of people in remote original habitats, we do not find people starving. Like non-human species, “primitive” human beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment. History is replete with examples of early humans and more remote ancestors of “civilized” people not increasing their food production and distribution capabilities annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands upon thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution and the production of more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical capacity to sustain them because human population growth or decline is primarily determined by food availability. Looked at from a global population perspective, more food equals more human organisms; less food equals less human beings; and no food equals no people. The idea that food production must be increased to meet the needs of growing human population has been actually giving rise to skyrocketing human population numbers, not only since the Industrial Revolution but even more recently and intensively with the onset of the Green Revolution that began sixty years ago.

  • thalwen

    What about our religious liberty? Whenever the religious liberty argument is used, it is used by homophobic, misogynist, racist groups based on their right to treat their neigbour less than they’d like to be treated (as I remember there was some guy.. central to Christianity.. that said something of the opposite.) Being anti-gay, anti-woman and anti-poor may be representative of some right-wing denominations and churches but it isn’t the majority view of most of the country, nor most of Christianity. 


    It’s time to take faith and family back from the right. Being pro-family and pro-child shouldn’t be code for an extreme right-wing agenda. Supporting health care access, reproductive health, services for born children, equal pay, etc. these are all commie-pinko pro-family ideas that have just as much, if not more scriptural backing as the exclusionary policies of the right. 


    Religious liberty is a constitutional right that belongs to all of us, not just bigots.

  • jennifer-starr

    You’re like a one note orchestra. This has NOTHING  to do with the subject of the article. 

  • veggietart

    Religious liberty means you have the right to worship (or not) as you choose.  It does not mean that you can decide that your religion is against something and infringe on the rights of others.

  • give-em-hell-mary

    I’ll bet the following adulterous anti-choice Tea Party creep whines about his religious liberty and privacy being violated by the Dems who are now gossipping about his forcing an abortion on patient/mistress #4!  He’s now married to his second wife.  I hope he’s kicked out of Congress!