Late on New Year’s Eve, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed to a request by an order of nuns to stay the requirement for contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A few days later, the Obama administration responded by saying that the Little Sisters of the Poor was already exempt from the requirement because its health insurance was provided by Christian Brothers Services, a religious organization.
If it wasn’t so serious, the Little Sisters case might be the basis for a funny Saturday Night Live skit: the Little Sisters, insured by its Christian brothers, was let off the hook by the Catholic school-educated
Supreme Court justice. Somehow, an order of nuns worrying that they could cause the 67 employees at their nursing homes to “behave immorally” by using birth control strikes me as worthy of satire.
But it is serious, because the implications go far beyond the Little Sisters. There are currently more than 90 cases wending their way through the courts on the required contraceptive provisions of the ACA in the name of the religious liberty of the employing organizations. The case brought by Hobby Lobby, a secular corporation with a Roman Catholic leader, will be heard by the Supreme Court in March.
More than a dozen faith-based organizations, including the Religious Institute, the organization I head, have signed on to a friend of the court brief in opposition to these claims. As faith leaders, we believe that all persons should be free to make personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community. We remind the Supreme Court that including contraceptives as a covered service does not require anyone to use it; excluding contraceptive coverage for those who choose to plan and space their families with modern methods of birth control will effectively translate into coercive childbearing for many.
As a religious leader, I support religious freedom. Religious freedom means that each individual has the right to exercise their own beliefs; it does not mean that an individual or a corporation gets to exercise their beliefs to deny others’ freedoms. It is morally wrong for employers to deny the women who work for them access to basic health care.
The fact is that each of us must have the right to accept or reject the principles of our own faith without legal restrictions. No single religious voice speaks for all faith traditions on contraception (or any other controversial subject), nor should government-supported programs take sides on religious differences.
The Little Sisters call contraceptive use a “sin,” and many mainstream news stories about the case quote only religious leaders that oppose it. Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters, told NBC, “If you are directing someone else to do the act [use contraception] that is immoral, you yourself are immoral.” For me, the sin is not a person using birth control; the sin is denying women the right and means to prevent unplanned pregnancies. It is precisely because life is sacred that I support the intentional—indeed moral—use of contraceptive methods by all who are not planning pregnancies.
The reality is that almost all people of faith in the United States, including most Roman Catholic women, use birth control. Almost every Protestant and Jewish denomination has supported responsible childbearing and family planning for decades. More than one thousand religious leaders recently endorsed the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning, calling access to family planning a moral imperative.
One can imagine that Justice Sotomayor learned a conservative sexual theology from her elementary school nun-teachers. But surely she learned later in life that each individual has the right to their own moral agency and that there is an urgent need to protect the rights of individuals to make their own moral choices. We can only hope that as she reviews the response by the Obama administration, she’ll send the case back to the courts and ultimately vote to protect the rights of us all.