Blog of Rights

ACLU Lens: Using Religion as an Excuse for Discrimination

By Robyn Shepherd, ACLU at 12:21pm

This week, the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops is holding its annual meeting in Baltimore. The bishops are the lobbying arm of the Catholic church, and they hold substantial sway over lawmakers. But instead of focusing on issues like poverty or the economy, the bishops are instead complaining loudly that recent laws broadening women’s access to contraception and granting same-sex couples the freedom to marry amount to an assault on their religion.

However, as this Media Matters piece attests, this is hardly the case.

The bishops complained of anti-Catholic bias when the Obama administration declined to award them a contract to administer a program assisting victims of sex trafficking because the bishops refused to allow program funds to be used for abortion and contraception services and referrals. HHS instead gave grants to organizations that enable these women to get the care they need (legal aside: the ACLU has an ongoing case challenging that initial grant, and will continue litigating to ensure that government money is never used to impose any set of beliefs on vulnerable victims). Media Matters dissects the bishops’ arguments as articulated in a recent Washington Post piece by Michael Gerson.

The Gerson piece attempts to gloss over the fact that trafficking victims are often sexually abused, which is why it is critical that they have access to a full range of reproductive health care. Media Matters points to a British study that found that 95 percent of trafficking victims in Europe report being sexually assaulted.

Additionally, Media Matters shows that the bishops do not speak for the overwhelming majority of American Catholics, 78 percent of whom believe that rape victims should have access to abortion care and 63 percent of whom believe that insurance should cover contraception.

With facts like these, it is a matter of good sense, not animus, that the administration gave the contract to groups that will allow victims access to critical reproductive health services.

There’s no question that the Constitution allows everyone to practice their religion as they see fit. However, the Constitution does NOT allow one particular group to impose its beliefs on everyone else with federal money. That is exactly what the bishops are seeking to do. Nobody’s religious liberty is in jeopardy here. It is the right of others to live free from discrimination that is in danger.

And it’s not just the bishops. We’re seeing cases in which students training to be guidance counselors refuse to help teenagers in crisis because they are gay. We are seeing adoption agencies that use government funds refuse to adopt to same-sex couples. We are hearing of hospitals facing censure for providing a critically ill woman with an abortion in order to save her life. The bishops are not the victims here.

Our government’s top priority should be to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, in accordance with our constitutional values. Allowing one particular faith to dictate how others should live does nothing to achieve this.

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