Forces Championing Religious Liberty and Contraceptive Coverage Head to Supreme Court

A minister with an intensely personal experience on this issue says the two need not be at odds.

The Rev. Angela Herrera is a Unitarian Universality minister at The First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque.  (National Journal)

The Rev. Angela Herrera, 37, is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Albuquerque, N.M., and a member of the 2014 Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Albuquerque is a city where, according to Herrera, women of childbearing age may experience difficulty accessing a full range of contraceptive services. As a result, it's a community where Herrera and others will watch closely the outcome of Tuesday's Supreme Court arguments centering around the obligation of for-profit corporations to provide those covered under their employee health insurance plans with access to subsidized contraception.

Herrera shared a very personal experience with The Next America and talked about what she sees as the false perception of a clash between women's health and religious liberty.

As a woman and a religious leader in my Albuquerque community, I've been paying close attention to the lawsuits claiming the Affordable Care Act violates "religious liberty." Corporations are asking to be exempt from requirements within the law that health plans provide basic preventative health care services to women — including contraceptive coverage.

I have personal experience with another person's claim to religious liberty threatening to derail and seriously complicate my life. This is more information than I'd usually share with strangers or even with my congregation, as I did last Sunday. But my story is particularly relevant now that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius cases.

In 1999, my husband and I experienced a birth-control failure. I was a part-time student and already had a newborn and a 3-year-old. My husband and I knew immediately we were in trouble. I called the midwife who had delivered my son a few months earlier, and she phoned in a prescription for emergency contraception. Emergency contraception works by preventing a pregnancy from occurring. It is not the "abortion pill."

The sooner you take the pills, the more effective they are. So, you'd better believe that first thing in the morning I got the babies up and ready, buckled into the car, and I headed straight to the pharmacy. But when I got there, the pharmacist — a big, stern-looking man in his 50s — informed me that he would not fill my prescription because he thought it was immoral.

My adrenaline surged. Did he have the right to cause a delay that could get me pregnant? I instructed him to transfer my prescription to the nearest pharmacy.

Luckily, it was just four miles away.

Luckily, I had a car.

Luckily, I didn't have to hurry to an unforgiving job.

And luckily, the next pharmacist did fill my prescription.

I say "lucky" because if any of those things weren't in place, I could have had my third baby in four years. And then what? Would I have been able to continue with my studies at community college, leading to a university scholarship, then graduate school at Harvard, and my becoming a faith leader in Albuquerque? I cannot say with certainty that I would have. All because a pharmacist disagreed with my midwife's prescription for emergency contraception.

After my experience, I was able to use my insurance to get an IUD, one of the most reliable forms of birth control available and something that would have cost too much for my family out of pocket. IUDs and emergency contraceptives are both forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood refuse to cover for their female employees. And not just female employees, but employees' female partners, and adolescent daughters.

As a faith leader, I believe deeply in your right to be the author of your own life. I honor your inherent worth and dignity and your capacity for moral reasoning. I respect that you and you alone know what is best for you, and I would never seek to interfere with your ability to pursue your life or your calling in the way that pharmacist almost did with me. Or like the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases are attempting to do.

It's no surprise that the public health experts who developed the list of required women's preventative services included contraception. Numerous studies show that women are healthier and have better health and pregnancy outcomes when they can plan when and if to become pregnant.

To accommodate religious concerns about this requirement, while still protecting the ability of women to access contraception if they choose, the ACA allows nonprofit religious organizations to avoid directly providing this contraceptive coverage. These organizations can fill out a form and become exempt from paying for contraception or being involved in the process.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are for-profit corporations with interfaith workforces, yet their leadership claims the law violates their religious liberty. Corporations don't go to church. They don't light candles, sing hymns, or meditate. Corporations are not entitled to religious liberty because they cannot be practitioners of religion.

These cases are about for-profit corporations claiming to have civil rights that trump their employees' rights.

We are now engaged in a kind of political jujitsu — with religious and social conservatives using the language of "freedom" to constrain the choices of others. The media has implicitly agreed, making it sound as though these cases are about religious liberty versus women's health. As a faith leader, I know religious liberty and women's health are not — and should not be — in opposition. They go hand in hand.

The U.S. Constitution says that the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood may express their views, but may not impose them on you or me. Because in order for us to coexist, religious liberty must end at the tips of our noses. In my case, the pharmacist's claim to religious liberty did not stop at the tip of my nose. It barged right into the most private part of my life. If not decided wisely, these Supreme Court cases will take that kind of interference in the private lives of others to a sweeping level by allowing corporations to interfere in the personal health decisions of thousands of women and families with varied health circumstances, worldviews, and financial situations.

That's whose rights are really at stake. Real women like me. Real families like mine. It's not religious liberty versus women, but religious liberty for a few versus religious liberty for all, including people whose faith allows them to follow their own conscience and make the best decisions for their own lives.

The Rev. Angela Herrera is a Unitarian Universalist minister at the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque,  N.M. Follow Herrera on Twitter at @revaherrera.


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