Religious Liberty…For Bishops

In 1630, the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay colony where they could have the religious liberty to worship and to practice their faith as they pleased. However it soon became apparent that they were not willing for Quakers and Baptists to have the same religious liberty. When those two troublesome types showed up they were banished south into what the Puritans called the “cesspool of vice,” i.e. Rhode Island.

Fortunately, down in Rhode Island was Roger Williams who established the American tradition that no religion was more important than any other.

In the recent political fight over whether the Affordable Care Act can require religious institutions that serve and employ people of all faiths (and no faith) to provide insurance that will cover contraception without co-pay, the media coverage seems to suggest that only one religion is involved—that only the religious liberty of the Roman Catholic bishops is at stake.

But many of the employees of those hospitals and universities are protestants and Jews who believe that it is an obligation of their religion to practice contraception in order to have no more children than they can be responsible for. What about their religious liberty to practice their faith?

The voices of those religious people have been distressingly ignored. It’s almost always presented as a conflict between the leaders of a church vs. a secular government agency. All the representatives of the sacred seem to be on one side.

But the struggle to bring birth control into the hands of American women has always been a struggle between differing religious views, not between religious and secular ones. When I was a seminary student in New York City in 1958, the public hospitals of the city would not distribute contraceptives, though there was no law against it. The politicians didn’t want to upset the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York.

But when a Jewish doctor working in a public hospital tried to fit a diaphragm for a Lutheran woman the hospital administrator told him it was not allowed. In the ensuing controversy the New York City Board of Rabbis issued a statement against the hospital policy. So did the New York Protestant Council. The Diocese of New York fought to keep the policy as it was. After a 4 month fight, the Board of Hospitals agreed to change the policy, meaning that birth control would be allowed in the public hospitals of New York City. There were many fights like that.

But in this current controversy, only one religious voice is being heard despite the fact that, on the 8th of February, 20 representatives of protestant and Jewish groups released a statement supporting the government policy, declaring that:

Our leaders have the responsibility to safeguard individual religious liberty and to help improve the health of women, their children and families. The Administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care.

But from MSNBC to FOXNews, there has been little or no mention of this religious support for the new policy on television. I have seen a Cardinal on Morning Joe, but no sign of ministers or rabbis who don’t agree with the Cardinal. That tends to render the other religious viewpoints invisible.

This is a matter of justice. To block access to birth control under the guise of religious liberty is simply unjust to women. 

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