My View

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.
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The Rev. Angela Herrera
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The Rev. Angela Herrera
March 25, 2014, 7:17 a.m.

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.


Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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