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 academia.edu.