Does the new birth control rule protect people of faith? Quite the opposite.
For millions of Americans, this rule is a threat to their religious freedom and the vision of a just society their faith traditions put forth.
Yesterday, the Trump administration released two final rules upending the birth control coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act. We know the rules will lead to more people being denied birth control coverage. But does will they also protect people of faith? The rules claims to protect “religious or moral objection[s] to health insurance” that includes to birth control coverage, but does that claim check out? Or is this simply an attack on birth control coverage cloaked in religion?
First, it’s worth noting majorities of most religious groups say privately-owned corporations should provide employees with health care coverage that includes contraception. Even among white evangelical protestants, the sole group without majority support, forty-two percent agree with the requirement. This religious support for birth control is not new. In fact, for nearly a century, religious leaders have spoken out in support of access to contraception, family planning, and birth control.
These religious positions may not get as much public attention or be covered as frequently in the news, but they do exist and are rooted in deeply held religious beliefs. In 2012, when the original debate was happening about whether the Affordable Care Act (ACA) should include birth control coverage, the Religious Institute brought together theologians, religious leaders, and social ethicists to discuss religious beliefs and theological positions on access to birth control and family planning services. Together, these faith leaders released an “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning” (OLFP). This theological statement has been signed by thousands of religious leaders — serving throughout the country — who support access to birth control because of their religious beliefs, not in spite of them.
What theological reasons does the open letter give for supporting access to birth control? Four theological principles stand out: the idea the sexuality is a gift, the sacredness of family and parenting, individual moral agency, and the teachings of our sacred texts. The OLFP argues that sex and sexuality are “divinely bestowed gifts.” Access to safe and affordable contraception allow for a fulfilling, mutually respectful, pleasurable, and loving sexual life. Believe it or not, that is a theological value! The letter goes on to say, “our faith traditions affirm parenthood is sacred, and therefore should not be entered into lightly nor coerced.”
Underpinning both of these theological values is the idea that individual moral agency must be respected. For these theologians and the thousands of people who have signed the open letter, their faith traditions teach that every person should be free to make decisions about their families and their reproductive lives, including about when and if they wish to have children. Though silent on modern forms of family planning, even sacred texts suggest support for access to birth control. Creation stories the world over tell of life being created intentionally. And scriptures demand that we care for the marginalized and the vulnerable. Denying people access to birth control — whether it is being used for family planning or a range of other medical needs — is not caring for them. And it certainly falls short of the moral vision, set forth in many religious traditions, of a more just society.
So, to return to the original question: Does this new rule protect the religious beliefs of people of faith? The short answer is “no.” The longer is answer is it depends whose religious beliefs you’re talking about. This rule privileges the religious beliefs of employers over employees and the beliefs of religious conservatives over those of a majority of religious Americans. If you are a person of faith who supports access to birth control because of your religious tradition, you can be denied birth control because of your employer’s religious beliefs. Your religious beliefs, in other words, will be infringed upon, not protected
This is not an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise good rule. It is the rule’s central aim, all part of a long-term strategy to carve out legal protections for conservative religious beliefs and to weaponize religious freedom as a tool for discriminating against LGBTQ people and people seeking reproductive health care.
For millions of Americans, this rule will not protect them. It will threaten their religious freedom and the vision of a just society their faith traditions put forth.