The Rhetoric of Freedom of Religion in the Debate about Contraception Coverage By Elise M. Edwards

Does freedom of religion include the right to impose your religious views on your employees?  Should freedom of religion exempt you from financially contributing to a medical benefit for your employees that you consider sinful?

According to an Associated Baptist Press article, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “called a new rule [by the Obama Administration] requiring insurance plans to cover birth control — including those paid for by religious employers that believe artificial birth control is a sin — a ‘horrible decision’ that poses a problem not just for faiths that object to birth control” in the January 28 broadcast of Richard Land Live.  Land believes that this policy infringes on religious freedom.  (Note that the health care policy  does exempt houses of worship and religious organizations that employ primarily those of the same faith, but not organizations like hospitals and colleges that employ and serve people of all faiths, or no faith. An article by Religion News Service, posted here, also on a Baptist media outlet, explains the policy in more depth.)

Land’s argument describes mandated insurance coverage for birth control as a conflict with religious freedom partly because he examines the issue from the position of an employer.   It looks different when deliberated from the perspective of an individual with less power (the employee).  Consider the case of a woman whose religious beliefs allow contraceptive use who is denied coverage because her insurance plan conforms to her employer’s religious beliefs instead of her own.  If she cannot afford to do the family planning measures that are condoned or even advocated by her faith, her free exercise of religion constrained.  And must those who do not ascribe to religious beliefs at all conform to the employer’s exercise of religion?

Obama Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that “individual decisions about whether or not to use birth control, and what kind, remain in the hands of women and their doctors.”   This is consistent with language used by women’s rights groups, particularly those with pro-choice commitments such as NARAL.  While I do not expect religious conservatives to agree with these groups’ agenda, I do wish they would address their framing of the debate as a health care issue in addition to a moral one.  The dominant (male) voices of conservative Christianity in the media do not seem to include women’s sexual and reproductive health as a part of women’s overall health.  But while contraception use is a moral issue for many who consider taking it, it is a medical issue for all who do.

If as large a proportion of women in the work force took medication for arthritis as contraception and health insurance companies routinely excluded the medication from coverage or required $40-$100 copays for a monthly dose, and then policies were being changed to mandate full coverage for it, there would not be as much outrage.  Obviously, using arthritis medication is not considered a sin by most Christian groups, whereas birth control is considered sinful by Catholic teachings and those by some other conservative Christians.  But I find it remarkable that Land and those who think like him argue that an employer must be allowed to limit the full range of legal medical choices for employees based on grounds of freedom of conscience and religion.

Although I favor requiring health insurance to cover birth control, even when it is paid for by religious employers, I don’t think Land’s questions should be summarily dismissed.  I think they need to be examined in light of other views about religious freedom, because when we use this line of reasoning, we are ultimately arguing for whose freedom needs to be preserved more.

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida.  She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities.  Follow her on twitter, google+ or

Categories: Contraception, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Politics, Power relations

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24 replies

  1. Thanks for a clear and constructive response to what seems to me to as to you to an attempt to abuse the doctrine of freedom of religion. It seems to me that the framers of the constitution were speaking about not preventlng someone from expressing an unpopular or minority point of view. I don’t even think they envisioned tax exemptions for religious organizations. And I am sure they did not as you say envision the expression of one person’s individual religious belief to inhibit the freedom of another. If the RCs or others don’t want to provide full coverage health insurance, then maybe they should get out of the employment business altogether. In this case this would leave the RC church fully able to deny the birth control pill to its all male priesthood and not to get involved in anyone else’s life. Almost all RC women in the US also use birth control at some point in their lives.


    • Thank you, Carol. It makes me angry that they use the language of religious freedom to justify narrowing options for women who may also ascribe to religious beliefs, but whose interpretation of it vary. This is not just a problem with the Catholic church. I was prompted to blog on this because I came across the article on a Baptist website. Richard Land, who I wrote about above, could be rightly named as part of his denomination’s male hierarchy, though. (As of 1998, Southern Baptists affirm the authority of men in the household and reserve pastoral leadership roles for men.) One of the problems I have with his statements is his presumption that to think other than he does is poor judgement. He’s speaking about supporting President Obama when he says that. But applying his reasoning to the issue he’s riled up about, protecting freedom of religion against mandates for insurance coverage of birth control, he seems to say that any position other than the religious conservative position is worng and does not need to be protected. Also, speaking from my own perspective as a Baptist -but not SOUTHERN Baptist- I find it contradictory with the Baptist practice of local church authority. Local churches have a congregational system of authority which means that views on several issues like ordination of women and homosexuality vary. Land’s idea of freedom of religion should as least accomodate the variance of doctrinal beliefs in his own denomination.


  2. Thank you Elise, this was helpful to think through all of the different freedoms in the mix. Religious freedom does not operate in isolation and has both individual and collective/institutional dimensions. It is so hard to fathom why the male hierarchy of the church cannot empathize across the gender line to understand how essential regulating one’s fertility is to basic health and and common good and to furthering the very goals of the church to reduce the # of abortions in this country.


    • Emily, thank you for your comment. I, too, question why the health care rationale for making birth control more accessible is not being addressed by the conservative position. This mandate is, after all, part of health care reform. Do they disagree that this is a health issue? Do they disagree that it will lower unplanned pregnancy rates or do they think that in itself is detrimental to the common good? Obviously, there are official Catholic teachings about contraception, but I really do wish it was contextualized by being discussed in public debate about specific issues, like this.


      • The bottom line seems to be that they don’t want women to be able to make choices about pregnancy. They really do want us barefoot and pregnant and therefore “under their thumbs.” The rest stems from that. It is a hard “pill” for us to swallow that some men in power stil work from that bottom line. I would lilke to think that no one really thinks that way any more, least of all in the good old US of A. We need to keep speaking out as you are and to make sure other men in power like Obama realize that religious freedom is masking a last gasp cry for male dominance.

        Loretta Lynn was right. Birth control is women’s liberation:

        You wined me and dined me
        When I was your girl
        Promised if I’d be your wife
        You’d show me the world
        But all I’ve seen of this old world
        Is a bed and a doctor bill
        I’m tearin’ down your brooder house
        ‘Cause now I’ve got the pill

        All these years I’ve stayed at home
        While you had all your fun
        And every year thats gone by
        Another babys come
        There’s a gonna be some changes made
        Right here on nursery hill
        You’ve set this chicken your last time
        ‘Cause now I’ve got the pill


  3. I think that it is important that employers stay out of peoples personal business on what they decide to do about their bodies. If a woman chooses to use birth control she is not committing a “sin” she is merely protecting herself from an unwanted pregnancy or she may have other medical reasons. Whatever the reasons are they are up to her discretion and no company should feel above because of their so called “moral compass.” I think people take things to heart way too much thus skewing what is really meant. People choose to believe something either out of fear of a greater being or because it is in their favor for whatever reason. I don’t think companies should have the right (despite their religious convictions) to deny a woman the use of birth control, if she chooses to, that is her right! And no one should feel like they have a “duty” to deny her that. I think it goes to show that no matter how secular we claim to be it is all BS.


    • Kim, I agree with you. The only distinction I’d make is that these religious institutions would probably say they are not *denying* a woman access to birth control. She can still obtain the prescription from her doctor and get it from the pharmacy (or in the case of the morning-after pill, go directly to the pharmacy and obtain it.). The religious conservative argument is that they should not have to pay for something they consider immoral. It’s the same argument many people made about federal bailout money that went to pay for executive bonuses or expensive retreats. The difference I think, though, is that by withholding financial support for birth control, the church deprives some women who otherwise could not afford it from taking LEGAL, RESPONSIBLE steps to prevent pregnancy, This, as many of us have already said, is a decision that should be made by her because it is her health issue. Yet it can ultimately affect the common good in a very real way that corporate bonuses do not. If we reduce the unintended pregnancy rate, we would be taking steps to address women’s poverty and a host of several related issues. By protecting an employee’s freedoms instead of the instiution’s, we keep decisions that affect her most in her hands.


      • Elise,
        Thanks for your reply :). It is just crazy how our society works. Like you said these companies use the excuse of religion to keep them from paying after all isn’t that what our nation is built upon? Finding any way to safe some money by claiming that they have righteousness in their hearts… what a crock. Everything just has some grand scheme in order to keep us oppressed and to make us feel helpless.


  4. Freedom of religion should not be used as a tool by employers to prevent a woman of obtaining birth control under her health insurance. I think women using birth control should not be deemed as sinful since it is a personal choice. Many women that consider themselves religious use birth control to further their careers or obtain certain goals they wish to acquire before they start a family of their own. Therefore, it does not make them deviant or sinful. These women are just exercising their right to choose what to do with their own bodies and reproductive system. Therefore, neither employers nor the state should have the right to prevent women from obtaining such treatment under their health insurance. I have not heard of employers or anyone else for that matter to make an upheaval about men using contraceptives to prevent impregnating a woman; so why should women be criticized and reprimanded when wanting to do so?


  5. Carol,
    In response to: “The bottom line seems to be that they don’t want women to be able to make choices about pregnancy.”

    I think we have to discuss how they really don’t want women to have control or say over their bodies as well! People are framing this in a religious freedom discourse, but when does the overall safety for women’s health come into play? Is it religious freedom or practice to demand that they cover birth control?

    Sadly, I think that this matter will be decided when the controversial issue of individuals HAVING to pay for health insurance or be fined is decided by the Supreme Court. If they find that that part of the Health Care law is unconstitutional, I think that the current cases such as the ones we are talking about here, will have precedent. If they dont, I think we know what will happen then!

    Great post Elise! We talked about this today in Dr. Mason’s class!


  6. Thank you so much for bringing this pertinent issue to the fore, and the rhetoric of “religious freedom” is one that gets tossed around with a multiplicity of meanings. The bottom line for me is, when does “religious freedom” end up trumping other kinds of freedoms, in this case, women’s. As you said, for the women, many of whose religious backgrounds support the use of contraception, the freedom for something that should be a basic inclusion in health care programs is limited at the expenses of a (minority) group’s so-called freedom. Like you, I also agree that Land’s concerns should not be dismissed – we need to take into account the plurality of beliefs in this country with earnest seriousness. I think Bush’s legislation on “Charitable Choice” really got the whole rhetorical ball rolling and now “religious freedom” is more confusing than ever.


  7. Elise – in my Religion and Law in the U.S. class this semester, we’ll be specifically taking up the issue of religion, law, and medicine in two weeks! Thanks for writing about such an important topic!


  8. This is an important topic in so many ways, not only is the coverage of contraceptives by religious employers an issue, but the coverage of contraceptives by health care providers is as well. Through this post the question in my mind that emerges is why are religious employers continuously exempt from laws of which everyone must abide? A similar example of this can be seen in the article on “Ministerial Exceptions” in which religious institutions are desiring exemption from the ADA. The issue isn’t whether religious employers or organizations should or shouldn’t cover contraceptives in health care benefits, because most of us would agree that they should. It’s more about why religious organizations are permitted to limit their employee’s health benefits simply, because they personally do not support artificial contraception. As you mentioned in the article Elise, this is not just a health care issue, it is also a moral issue, one of which that restricts women’s health care benefits and their choices. What I find intriguing, is that the religious employers are essentially making the decisions for their female employees, regardless of their employee’s religious or non-theistic beliefs. This is undoubtedly something other employers or organizations would never be able to legally accomplish, so why is this being permitted? This issue is larger than just religious organizations. The epicenter is the patriarchal foundation of our society, whose goal is to restrict women’s decision making and reproductive control. It is the individual woman’s religious beliefs, lifestyle, and health precautions that should result in her use of contraception, not her employer’s religious beliefs. The lack of contraceptive coverage is another way religious employers and organizations are able to control the life of working women and their choices about reproduction. Overall, religious organizations and employers should not be excluded from the new rule enacted by the Obama Administration. Basically, it is a woman’s choice whether she wants to use contraception, not her employer’s religious affiliation. The restrictions placed on women’s contraceptive health care coverage is just another way for religious organizations and employers to control women’s choice as well as their bodies.


  9. Elise, I appreciate you raising awareness on this issue. it seems religious freedom coincides with women’s further repression! it is so frustrating to feel like the best interest of the woman is never paramount, even with such issues as birth control! I try my best to have a neutral eye when discussing things like this, and to understand all parts of each argument, but frankly it scares me that people think Birth control is a “sin”. simply put, no matter what anyone believes, church and state should ALWAYS be separate.


  10. Great insight into a difficult issue.



  1. Get Your Laws off my Body! by Elise Edwards « Feminism and Religion
  2. 1, 2, 3, 4: FEMINISTS DON’T WANT ANOTHER WAR by Carol P. Christ « Feminism and Religion
  3. Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church Part II – WE are the Church! By Michele Stopera Freyhauf « Feminism and Religion

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