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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Protecting Religious Freedom or Infringing on the Rights of Women?

Protecting Religious Freedom or Infringing on the Rights of Women?

Here in Ohio, the swingiest of all swing states, things got really intense as the U.S. presidential race finally drew to a close. The political commercials on the local television stations were so constant that they rose (or sunk) to the level of absurdity; the situation on the local radio stations was almost as bad. Our mailboxes were inundated with ridiculous, misleading, racist, over-the-top pieces of mail for the last few months. Personally, I averaged five of these mailings each day for the final two or three weeks alone. I shudder to think how many trees were sacrificed to this idiocy.

But, it wasn’t just the campaigns, PACs and other special interest groups that showered us with this political madness from the outside… we Buckeyes are politically passionate, too. People phone banked, rallied and wore out their shoes going door to door canvassing. I even saw a group of kids chanting “O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A!” as they walked down the street trick-or-treating. And the yard signs… oh the yard sign! Signs for the various candidates covered front lawns, side lawns and highway exit ramps like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Believe me when I tell you they were everywhere. Many people weren’t just satisfied with putting one sign for a candidate in their yard; they displayed signs proclaiming their various affiliations and support. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to see a regular Obama/Biden sign along with a “Union for Obama” sign, or two versions of a Romney/Ryan signs in a single yard. But one sign combination that cropped up in that last week and a half before the election really caught my attention. In many of the yards with a Romney/Ryan sign, I began to see a sign proclaiming “Protect Religious Freedom.” At first glance, one might think that’s not so bad. After all, I, myself, am all for the religious freedom and freedom from religion guaranteed to us in the Constitution. But, with a little more thought, and given the constant barrage of the not-so-subtle narrative we’d been getting for months here in Ohio, the message behind the “Protect Religious Freedom” signs became perfectly clear and really disgusting.

The first message was this: Since President Obama is a secret Muslim, if he’s re-elected, he’s going to go on Jihad during his second term and make us all live by Sharia law. You may laugh–but there are plenty of people that believe it. For example, during the last election cycle, in my very small, conservative hometown, there was a ten foot homemade sign in front of one house that said “Barack Obama Is A Baby Killing Muslim Terrorist” and one of the few people brave enough to display an Obama yard sign had it stolen and had a book about the dangers of Islam left in its place. (Yeah, seriously… I’m from that kind of town.) But, I’m not going to spend much time on this first point. In my opinion, as repugnant as that is, those people don’t seem to have a good grasp on reality.

The second message behind the Protect Religious Freedom signs involves the war on women that’s been ongoing and has been particularly heightened in the the past two years here in Ohio. The implication of this sign (and commercials and mailings and conversations between angry, indignant people) is that the provision in “Obamacare” requiring private health insurance to cover contraception infringes on the religious freedom of employers. These folks believe that employers should be able to decide whether or not women should have birth control pills covered by employer-provided health insurance, despite the fact that employees often also contribute a substantial amount financially to said insurance. Also, due to their religious beliefs, some employers feel they should be able to dictate the circumstances under which a woman is able to have birth control pills. For example, a female employee would need to prove to the employer she needs birth control pills for “medical reasons” such as endometriosis and doesn’t just want them for contraception.

This strikes me as an absolutely outrageous invasion of privacy. Employers have no right to such information. But, let’s take this scenario further. Perhaps an employer feels, because of his or her religious convictions, that single women shouldn’t use contraception, but it’s okay for married women to use it. Or, maybe it’s fine for married women to use birth control pills for purposes of contraception, but only after she’s had a certain number of children and the employer gets to determine what that number is. Allowing employers to pick and choose what medications are covered is a slippery slope with potentially dangerous and life-threatening consequences. What if an employer is against homosexuality/LGBTQ lifestyles based on religious objections and feels justified in denying all medicines used for treating HIV/AIDS, due to their association with the LGBTQ community? Or, say an employer’s religion precludes all drug use? Well, if you’ve smoked during your lifetime and develop lung cancer, no medication for you!  You drink alcohol and have liver disease? Sorry about your luck! If you want medication or treatment, you’re paying out of your own pocket. Perhaps a white employer is racist and uses religious doctrine as a basis for his or her racist beliefs. Then such an employer may feel justified denying coverage for diseases that affect certain racial groups, such as sickle cell anemia. The list of such potential scenarios could go on and on.

It seems to me that allowing employers to pick and choose whether or not birth control pills are covered is the proverbial small pebble rolling downhill that could turn quickly into an avalanche. Here in Ohio, we have some of the most restrictive (and in my view) backward laws regarding women’s health in the country and anti-choice lawmakers are constantly striving to push them farther in that direction. Since, in the view of many, birth control pills fall in the “abortion spectrum,” it’s all fine and good to limit access in any way they see fit up to and including outlawing them based on religious beliefs. I wonder how the some of those people might feel, however, if their sick mother were suffering from emphysema and was denied insurance coverage for medication and hospitalization because she smoked her whole life? Thankfully, there are pro-choice voters, activists, lawmakers and other elected officials that, like the mythological Sisyphus, will keep trying to push that pebble back up the hill and, hopefully, we’ll never have to know.

Written by Nicole Wander

Follow her on Twitter @NicoleWanderZB!