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Religious freedom doesn’t excuse denying someone health care and it doesn’t excuse discrimination.

Religion is a powerful force in America. Millions of us organize our lives around the tenets of our faiths. We keep the Sabbath, pray five times a day facing Mecca. We celebrate a miraculous birth. The freedom for every individual to do this is part of what makes America strong.

Americans hold dear the Constitutional principle of religious freedom, which allows each of us to make our own decisions about our religious or unreligious lives. It does not and should not, however, grant people, corporations, and institutions the right to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Religious freedom doesn’t excuse denying someone health care and it doesn’t excuse discrimination. But some anti-reproductive health and anti-LGBTQ politicians and judges are making their own religious justifications to block women from health care and let businesses discriminate against LGBTQ individuals — all while allowing the religious beliefs of those in power override those of the individual.

Backlash against Roe v. Wade

Since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land almost 45 years ago, anti-abortion politicians have misused the idea of religious freedom to enact laws that interfere in access to safe, legal abortion and harm women’s health. For example, these laws permit hospitals to claim a religious objection in order to turn away a pregnant woman who needs a health-saving abortion or immediate miscarriage treatment. These “religious refusal” laws (also called “conscience protections”) allow people to use religion to trump accepted medical standards of care, even to the point of causing a woman significant medical complications and unnecessary delays.


How Bad Are So-Called Religious Refusal Laws?

Really bad.

  • In Kansas, a patient can’t sue her doctor for withholding accurate information about her pregnancy if the doctor believed the patient would have an abortion after receiving the information.

  • In South Dakota, a pharmacist can refuse to provide contraceptives even when a patient has a prescription from a health care provider.

  • In Maryland, a hospital can refuse to provide permanent birth control services to women who have decided that this type of contraception is right for them.


Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: The Supreme Court Moves Things From Bad to Worse

Though politicians have pushed so-called religious freedom laws since the 1970s, their dangers increased in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, allowed certain privately owned companies to deny their employees birth control coverage for religious reasons. (No-copay birth control is guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act.)

The Hobby Lobby ruling determined that a federal law — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, originally intended to protect members of minority religions from discrimination — extended to for-profit companies. The ruling also opened the door for more legal claims from businesses trying to impose their religious beliefs on others.

For millions of women who work at Hobby Lobby-type companies, the ruling would have left the decision about whether to access no-copay birth control up to their bosses. However, in response to the disastrous ruling, the Obama administration created a workaround that allows the companies to refuse to provide birth control coverage while also allowing these employees to access birth control coverage. It is yet unknown whether the Trump administration will eliminate that workaround, although President Trump and Vice President Pence have both made it known that they believe a boss’ religious beliefs should take precedence over a woman’s ability to access affordable birth control.  

Religious Freedom?

Around the same time as the Hobby Lobby decision, politicians in several states began pushing “religious freedom” legislation in an effort to help businesses deny services to and discriminate against LGBTQ people. One example: As governor of Indiana in 2015, Vice President Mike Pence signed into law legislation that allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ customers (and others), using their religious beliefs as a defense. (Only after significant public backlash from major companies and the NCAA did he work with lawmakers to amend the legislation to shield LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.)

The truth is, no matter what they might be called, these laws aren’t being used to protect the free exercise of religion. Too often, they just help some Americans use their religion as an excuse to discriminate against and harm others. How un-American is that?

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