Commentary: Putting religious group's campaign against contraception into context

First marketed in 1960, the birth control pill soon became the most popular form of contraception in the United States.

However, the pill was still not available to every woman who wanted it. Religious groups lobbied in favor of laws that banned all contraception, and it was not until 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that the right to contraception was protected by the Constitution.

Today, virtually all sexually active women — no matter what their religion — have used contraception.

Remarkably, contraception has recently come under attack with new vigor. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate Title X, the federal program that makes contraception accessible to low-income people throughout the country, and to defund Planned Parenthood’s family planning work. Mississippi was contemplating a constitutional amendment that would outright ban some of the most common forms of birth control. And now, important new federal guidelines that will ensure insurance plans include coverage of contraception are being targeted.

Despite the fact that these guidelines don’t require a single soul to use contraception, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious organizations are waging a high-intensity campaign to roll back this major achievement for women's health.

Their goal is to eliminate all contraception coverage from insurance plans. But if they can't do that, they want sweeping exceptions that would make the coverage guidelines meaningless for countless women. Specifically, the Bishops want all religiously-affiliated hospitals, social service agencies, and universities to be able to deny all of their employees — without regard to their own religious beliefs or health care needs — comprehensive insurance that includes birth control.

In any other context, we would be shocked at the suggestion that an organization’s religious affiliation should take precedence over an individual’s health care needs. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to religious objections to women’s health needs that they can seem commonplace.

It is important to remember, however, that many laws — including those we consider core to America’s values — initially confronted religiously-grounded opposition. And although our nation respects and protects sincerely held religious beliefs, we concluded long ago that religion should not be used to trump others’ civil rights protections. Let’s put the campaign against contraception access in historical context.

Religious Opposition to Racial Equality:

In 1964, three African-American residents of South Carolina brought a suit against Piggie Park restaurants, and their owner, Maurice Bessinger, for refusal to serve them. Piggie Park’s behavior now seems like nothing more than outrageous bigotry, but at the time it was rationalized on religious grounds. Bessinger argued that enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s public accommodations provision violated his religious freedom “since his religious beliefs compell[ed] him to oppose any integration of the races whatever.”

Fast forward to the 1980s, and religious objection to racial equality again captured the nation’s attention. Bob Jones University, a religiously-affiliated college in South Carolina, wanted an exemption from a rule denying tax-exempt status to schools that practice racial discrimination. The “sponsors of the University genuinely believe[d] that the Bible forbids interracial dating and marriage,” and it was school policy that students engaged in interracial relationships, or advocacy thereof, would be expelled. Bob Jones’s lesser known co-plaintiff, Goldsboro Christian Schools, even opposed integration of the classroom. According to their interpretation of the Bible, “[c]ultural or biological mixing of the races is regarded as a violation of God’s command.”

Religious Opposition to Equal Pay and Benefits:

In 1976, Roanoke Valley Christian Schools added a “head of household” supplement to their teachers’ salaries — but only to heads of household as determined by scripture. For Roanoke Valley, that meant married men. According to the church pastor affiliated with the school, Robert L. Alderman, “[w]hen we turned to the Scriptures to determine head of household, by scriptural basis, we found that the Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the house, head of the wife, head of the family.”

Paying married men more than married women for the same work violates the Equal Pay Act. We take it for granted that employers shouldn’t be able to blatantly discriminate against women like that, but it took the passage of federal laws to make it so. Roanoke Valley, however, when sued, claimed a right to an exemption from equal pay laws because its “head-of-household practice was based on a sincerely-held belief derived from the Bible.”

They weren’t alone. Fremont Christian School in California, for example, similarly tried to privilege their married male employees out of the belief that, based on Ephesians 5:23, “in any marriage, only the man can be the head of the household.”

In each of these cases — from opposition to integrated restaurants or relationships to denial of equal pay for female teachers — institutions wanted to opt out of laws promoting the general welfare of our nation’s people, and our courts said “no.” We respect and protect the right to hold religious beliefs, but they should not be imposed to the detriment of others in the face of contrary civil rights protections.

The current campaign against contraception isn’t different just because it seems familiar.

Insurance coverage of contraception promotes women’s health and equality. As the Supreme Court has explained, “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

Respect for religious liberty does not mean that institutions like hospitals and social service agencies get a free pass to discriminate against their employees by depriving them of this essential coverage any more than it meant Maurice Bessinger could close the door of his restaurant to certain people based on their skin color.


Sarah Lipton-Lubet is Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. She can be reached by email at media@dcaclu.org.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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