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Today's crisis

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The cover story of this issue of the Arkansas Times reminds us of another day when zealots tried to hold themselves above the law. Then it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that they didn't want to comply with, and the practice of racial discrimination that they sought to defend.

Now, it's religious extremists trying to impose their own beliefs on others, by denying needy Americans access to the birth control coverage that is provided in President Obama's health care reform. In 1964, racist shop owners claimed the right to deny service to black people. Today, the lawyer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that if he owned a Taco Bell, he should be able to deny his employees access to contraceptives. Hobby Lobby, a large chain of craft stores that purports to consider itself an evangelical Christian enterprise, has said it will defy the federal law requiring birth control coverage for its employees. In Denver, a federal judge has ruled that a heating and air conditioning firm can indeed deny birth control coverage to its workers, because the owners of the firm, conservative Catholics, are opposed to birth control.

The Denver ruling elicited a devastating rebuttal from Karen B. Ringen of Boulder, a member of the board of trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In a column for the Denver Post, she wrote:

"True religious freedom means the right to make religious decisions for yourself. It gives you (or your boss) no license to tell others what to do. If your religion teaches that the use of birth control is a sin, no one can force you to use it. But your belief, no matter how strongly held, does not give you the power to make decisions for others — especially when those decisions are of an intimate and personal nature. ...

"We simply cannot have a health-care system where workers' rights are held hostage to their employer's religious beliefs, and employers may pick and choose what they will allow in terms of access to health care for their employees. ...

"It is truly remarkable that some — including a federal judge — have embraced a theory of religious liberty that allows those in positions of authority to use government policy to force their theology onto the rest of us. Some may call that 'religious liberty.' To a lot of us, it looks more like something else: religious oppression."

A Supreme Court decision allowing either people or corporations to evade the law in the name of "religious freedom" would be a terrible blow to this country. How then could we stop a fundamentalist motel owner from refusing to rent rooms to Jews or atheists? Or a Muslim taxi driver from refusing to transport Christians to church? Or a Pentecostal factory owner who believes in faith healing from denying all medical coverage to his employees? The televangelists and the bishops may prefer theocracy to democracy. The founders of this nation most certainly did not.

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