Religious Liberty and the Affordable Care Act

Yesterday, on July 30, the Supreme Court issued it’s final ruling on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In summary, this case involved a clash between the mandates of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, requiring all businesses with a minimum of employees to provide  with comprehensive health insurance, including no-cost access to twenty different kinds of contraceptives. The owners of Hobby Lobby, self-proclaimed “born-again Christians,” have moral objections to four of the twenty listed methods of birth control. Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSblog, summarized the subsequent legal situation well in “Birth control, business, and religious beliefs: In Plain English“:

Because they believe that human life begins at conception, the families therefore believe that if the corporations were to cover those four forms of birth control, they would in essence be “complicit in abortion.”

The families and the companies went to court, arguing that the “birth control” mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law that Congress enacted as a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision holding that an individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse him from having to follow a law that applies to everyone…

The Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. Justice Alito, delivering the Opinion of the Court, concluded:

The contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA.

This ruling seems to put a loosely defined subset of corporations on the same plane as individuals with regard to religious freedom. For many people, myself included, this language is troubling, as it seems to suggest that some corporations, at least those which are “closely held,” can opt out of laws which offend the sensibilities of the owners.  These fears have been expressed through a variety of internet memes and posters:

An excellent point from one of my former students. </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Via The Left Compass

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HL meme 30

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These images touch on several different fears that result from this ruling, including:

  • That as the rights of the fetus and the corporation are expanded, the rights of women are being curtailed
  • That the health of thousands of women will suffer as their employers withdraw health benefits for the treatment of dozens of health problems treated by birth control
  • That “closely-held corperation” is such a vague and legally amorphous term that this ruling will open the door to all manner of religiously based discrimination and interference in employee (read: everyone’s) life
  • That Americans everywhere could find themselves unable to shoulder the costs of other medications or procedures in the future, because of their employer’s personal beliefs
  • That unwanted pregnancy and abortion rates will rise

Hobby Lobby has rejected four methods of contraception, two of these are emergency contraception (“day after”) pills, vital to women who have been sexually assaulted or have experienced primary birth-control failure (such as condom breakage, a diaphragm tear, or antibiotic interference with the pill). The other two are hormonal and copper IUDs (Intrauterine Devices), one of which may be used as emergency contraception. The non-hormonal “Copper T” is a popular choice among women who cannot or prefer not to take hormonal contraceptives, who are allergic to latex or spermicides, or who simply want to rest comfortably in the knowledge that they will not get pregnant for 10 to 12 years unless and until they have their contraceptive method removed.

The impact of this decision on women workers is huge. The majority of Americans receive their healthcare entirely from their employer, and while two of the birth control methods rejected by Hobby Lobby may be obtainable for between $30 and $80 (a significant barrier to economically lower class women), the other two may cost between $500 and $1,000 (a significant barrier to lower and middle-class women, i.e. the majority of the American female workforce). Removing coverage for these methods of birth control effectively bans their purchase by Hobby Lobby employees unless they are able to save for them over time, the very kind of arrangement the Affordable Care Act was intended to make unnecessary, and an impractical expectation for at least three of these methods, since the need for emergency contraception, by nature, tends to be a surprise circumstance.

It’s worth noting that the Green family’s objection to three of the four banned contraceptivesnamely that they induce abortionis medically without merit, even if ‘pregnancy’ or ‘life’ are defined as the moment sperm fertilizes egg. Both emergency contraception pills and the hormonal IUD option prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation (removing egg from the equation). There is no evidence that these contraceptives harm or in any way disrupt the implantation of a fertilized egg. Research on how the copper IUD prevents pregnancy is inconclusive.

There are, of course, many other concerns to be had with this ruling. It’s worth your time to read the dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg (hyperlink contains compelling excerpts and access to the complete document, the table of contents is your friend).

And while you’re at it, watch this songified version of some of its most poignant passages (the chorus takes some editorial liberties):

I also found these articles and documents to be informative and compelling:

As a skeptic and a woman, I echo many of the concerns expressed above. Specifically, I wonder if this ruling represents yet another way in which the religious majority may enforce its values through American law and politics. I think all religious minorities, and especially secularistswhose sexual ethics often have little in common with the Abrahamic religionshave particular reason for concern. Christians comprise approximately 78% of the American population, it follows that the majority of non-Christians are employed by people of differing worldviews and convictions. For the atheist who works at Hobby Lobby, or the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Jew who is gainfully employed at any “closely-held corporation” decisions about their personal life and healthcare may now be financially determined by their (probably Christian) employer’s religious convictions, instead of being solely governed by their own medical needs and personal desires.

In other words, because of this ruling, religious minorities across the nation may be compelled by their employers to make decisions that differ from what they would have chosen were their healthcare strictly personal matter between themselves and the medical personnel they choose to consult. It would appear those days of private decision making are over.


Why We Gather

“I don’t get atheist clubs,” said Lawrence, “I think people creating a group around what they’re not may be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of.”

“You mean like, ‘Ooh! I don’t believe in book in fairies either, let’s start a club’?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s silly.”

I’ve heard this sentiment many times, both from bewildered Christian family members, and atheist “purists” who believe an integral part of atheism is moving as far away from Christianity as possible in worldview and appearance. This most recent conversation with my friend Lawrence, combined with the rise of “atheist churches” such as Sunday Assembly (to no small degree of criticism) has made me really consider the point of atheist gatherings. Previously I had always answered that a lack of faith does not negate the human need for community, a need which religious institutions–and in my experience, Christian churches–fill very well.

This is part of why it was a great relief when my friends Jodi and Janet took me into their secular gathering and introduced me to a new community. We met, somewhat ironically, on Friday nights, around the same time as Vespers–a weekly evening worship service, put on by our university, which “welcomed” or “opened” the Sabbath. Sometimes we watched videos by Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, sometimes we just met up and talked. The house where we met was off campus, so we were free to congregate, as a co-ed group, till the wee hours of the morning, and even drink a beer or two. I met some very good friends through that group, and based on that positive experience I sought out an atheist club when I transferred to a public univeristy.

My experience with this second group, however, was not comparable. It was a nice enough group of people, but many of them seemed to engage in rather blind criticism of Christianity and religious people. They quoted passages of Dawkins and Hitchens on the nature of religion and acted as they were informative of all religious individuals. A larger percentage of them had grown up atheist, and were content to dismiss Christians as delusional and the whole of religious experience as “superstitious, racist, bullshit.” I found myself, on more than one occasion, in the awkward position of defending the nuance of religious worldviews, which like secular worldviews, contain a diverse spectrum of beliefs, and are as defined by history, cultural influences, and pragmatism as by any particular sacred text. I found some of the later meetings of this group to be masturbatory exercises in superiority and irreverence as we played games like “Crazy Religion Jeopardy”–a game designed to point out the most outrageous, embarrassing, or violent aspects of various world religions and mock them without context or analysis.

I think this is what most people envision when they think of atheist gatherings: smug non-believers possessing little personal experience with religion, sitting around talking about how superior they are to all the sheeple out there, worshipping their sky-daddies.

For me, however, atheist gatherings have been so much more than that. That first group I joined, with Jodi and Janet, was so much more than a group of people who shared unbelief. It was a community of friends and fellow ideological minorities on a college campus defined by Adventism. It was a support group that helped ease the shock of realigning my worldview. I was better able to weather these changes because there were people around me who had asked the same questions, wrestled with the same challenges, and were experiencing the similar alienation from friends and family, often with greater severity. It was this shared experience that made meeting with fellow unbelievers worthwhile.

In both communities I mentioned, there was also the added benefit of getting to know people from other social minorities, similarly alienated from my Christian community and traditionally marginalized by Evangelical Christian culture. Through atheist clubs and the connections I cultivated through them, I was exposed to many kinds of people I may never have met otherwise. I became closer to the QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, and/or Gay) community. I discussed ethics with people who preferred alternative relational models such as polyamory and polygyny. I was able to examine the values of people with third party political affiliations by speaking to them first hand, and I became acquainted with many science students and enthusiasts in several different fields. My world opened up, and my assumptions about society were challenged every day because of these people.

Ultimately, Lawrence’s criticism still has some weight with me. My mixed experiences with atheist clubs yields mixed feelings about their usefulness. I am somewhat weary of atheist organizations which seem as dedicated to exclusive fraternity as they are to advocacy. I am disappointed by the lack of awareness displayed by atheist leaders such as American Atheists’ President David Silverman, who denies his ideological opponents their sincerity, and seems to believe that deep down, all religious leaders and many adherents (including, apparently,  Bill O’Reilly) are closet atheists.

Maybe atheist clubs do not serve a valuable purpose beyond offering support to those who’s geographical communities are dominated by strong theists, or who have recently defected from the religious majority. Then again, I supposed I’ve just described the reality of every atheist in America.♦

Losing My Empathy

We were sitting on the couch, talking about whatever as I skipped between browser tabs and eventually committed to chain-playing 2048. David reclined, I had my legs slung across his lap. It’s in those quiet moments when I’m not working, tackling homework, or reading articles that startling questions are given the opportunity to spring to mind. That night it was a question I had been trying to avoid for while, days, maybe weeks. “David, do you ever feel that the longer you’re away from church, the more absurd–“

“Yes!” He didn’t even let me finish the question.

We’d both been feeling it, not constantly, and stronger at some times than others, but feeling it nonetheless, the growing absurdity of everything we’d been raised to believe. Somewhere along the line we’d started laughing at Jesus-zombie jokes, and side-eyeing people who spoke of a literal snake in an ancient garden geographically located on earth. At some point promises of prayer lost their comfort, and the notion that we would willingly construct our moral understanding around an ancient Middle Eastern manuscript full of mythologies, and translation errors began to appear arbitrary and strange.

The disassociation from my former beliefs feels ironic somehow, given that I spent much of the last two years defending the rationality of Christians to their detractors in the various secular social media groups I frequent for support. “They’re not all crazies.” “Fundamentalists represent a small percentage of an ideologically diverse whole.” In the past, such phrases have left my fingers with great conviction, but this does not change the present reality. Having lost my faith, I am now losing my empathy.

I’ve avoided this admission for awhile now. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it’s a realization that further removes me, culturally and emotionally, from the bulk of my family and large swathes of old friends. Perhaps because I don’t want to admit the swaths of old friends are no longer relevant to the culture I embrace, my day-to-day life, or my vision of an ideal world. Perhaps because I can feel myself relating more and more to people I’ve generally disliked for their lack of empathy, arrogance, and pride. People like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher. The kinds of people who turn valid challenges to biblical authority into rude heckles and cutting attacks. The kinds of people who only augment the stereotype of secularists as cold, uncaring, immoral, haughty jerks.

I can’t stand these people, but I laugh at their jokes.

Personal Progress in Embracing the Now

Remember “Principles: Now,” which I posted as part of a series on my most deeply held beliefs? I rediscovered that post recently after revamping my class schedule a few days ago. It was written in August of last year, and so much has happened since that post to encourage and convince that I am, indeed moving forward.

Firstly, I started school again. Instead of taking the year I decided to jump in a quarter early. I also auditioned for plays, not just once, but three time. Since that post I’ve been in one theatre production, and am currently rehearsing for another. In keeping with my love of legislative journalism I am looking into the journalism program at Public College; and while I never made good on promise to start my legislative blog, I have delved more frequently into legal affairs here, with posts like Now you Know (published about a month prior to the Principles piece), December Demonstrations, and Religious Liberty and Kalei Wilson. For now, I’m not going to worry about starting a new blog, but will continue integrating legal comment into this blog whenever it seems topically appropriate.

In short, I’m in a good place. Even when I thought I was standing still I was moving forward. I was taking the time I need to deal with personal concerns, in hindsight, I also see that I was also taking a much needed break from college course work. Amazing what can change in a few months.

A lot of well meaning friends have told me that “god has a plan” for me, assurances which have rang particularly hollow in recent times. Embracing Secular Humanism has meant giving up on the notion of a cosmic plan for my life, and giving up on cosmic plans can be quite discomforting. When you don’t know what lies ahead, it’s nice to think that Someone does, and is intervening for the best outcome possible. It was from this place of uncertainty and guilt–that I was not making the most of my short existence– that I wrote my August entry about living in the now.

Letting go of cosmic plans can also be quite freeing. That is where I find myself now.

I no longer need to wonder if I’m doing the right thing, if every intersection I meet needs to be addressed with supplications to a Great Planner who will tell me which one is meant to be and which one will derail me from my ultimate purpose. I only need ask if the path I am choosing will take me in the direction I want to go. There is great liberty in this, and I am the sort of person who values liberty over comfort.

Valuable Vids: That’s Humanism!

Recently, the British Humanist Association released a set of videos narrated by Stephen Fry answering some common questions about Secular Humanism. These videos (half of which are animated by SkeptiSketch) address the questions, “How do we know what is true?” “What should we think about death?” “What makes something right or wrong?” and “How can I be happy?”

These are questions commonly asked of people who hold atheistic views primarily because truth, death and afterlife, morality, and happiness are concepts traditionally offered by religious worldviews, and so dominated by them in the public consciousness that many people do not understand how to consider them without religion. Many of my fellow skeptics, once they came out as non-theists, had to field questions from friends and family members who assumed that without god they would be sad, depressed, and without a moral compass.

In a few short minutes, however, these videos manage to provide succinct explanations for how a Secular Humanist understands truth, death, morality, and happiness through meaning-making. Through simplicity, brevity, and visual interest, these videos lend themselves to home use as conversation starters, educational tools, and as a crash course for theists who have not been exposed to much Humanist thought.

Personally, I plan to show them to my own family and friends, and to make them available to those who may have questions about my recent exit from the church.

You can view these videos here, on the British Humanism Association website. ♦ThatsHumanism_Web_Banner 500x160 copy

Quickpost: Religious Liberty, Skepticism, and the Veil

A couple days ago I ran into an article by Valerie Tarico on her blog “Away Point” about the hijab and how it relates to religious liberty. I’m posting it here because I think it offers insight into a religious practice, a cultural norm that is unfamiliar to many Americans (and many skeptics, who often dismiss the veil as a kind of eastern chastity belt without contemplating the ideological complexities surrounding it), and the intersection of this norm with the religious liberty discussion.

Debates about the rights of women of color, and women who identify with ethnic or religious minorities, too often take a strictly academic approach and fail to enlist adequate insight from the very women who must often live the consequences of the legal and cultural consensus. By contrast, Tarico’s four-part series, “Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab,” shares of the poignant stories of Marwa BerroReem Abdel-Razek, and Heina Dadabhoy, women who have been directly affected by feminist religious liberty debates, and who have made the difficult decision to leave their faith, and their hijab, behind. ♦

The Letter: Final Reply

By now you all know about the request I sent to my home church to remove my name from membership. The vote to remove my name was to take place at the next church board meeting. As expected, I received an email from my former head pastor the day after the meeting, the pertinent bits of which have been copied below:

Last night we had the March business meeting…I briefly presented your request saying simply that this is not a sudden decision, nor does it come because of bad experiences, anger, or frustration with our church.

A couple of members expressed surprise, but no one asked questions. I think our members are mature and understand that when a request like this comes, it is not a moment for questions or discussion, but of honoring the request.  A motion was made and the vote to remove you name from membership was taken…with regret.

You know, I’m sure, that you are loved in this community and, of course, always welcome when you’re here…


Pastor X

Pastor X further offered to mail me a copy of this email on church letterhead, an offer I have declined. I trust him, the church, and the process. It’s officially over. ♦