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March 2, 2016

Abortion and Religious Freedom: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Diversity in Reproductive Freedom

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its watershed decision forty-three years ago in Roe v. Wade, it staked out a zone of privacy around each woman’s right to determine whether to continue a pregnancy. While assailed repeatedly in the decades since, and at times reviewed and subjected to revision, this essential sphere of personal autonomy has stood the test of time. The Court’s recognition of the right to access an abortion reflects its appreciation of the intimacy of this decision. The choice to continue or terminate a pregnancy encompasses deeply private considerations of physical and mental health, personal circumstance, family planning, and financial and educational conditions and goals.

Photo Credit Debra Sweet Flickr

Photo Credit Debra Sweet Flickr

And for many the decision also includes contemplation of their core religious convictions and personal religious values. This point is frequently lost in the clamor and contention of America’s debate over reproductive freedom. Too often the dispute is framed in binary terms, between persons of religious faith who view abortion as murder and those who regard abortion as a woman’s right to control their own bodies and decide the course of their own lives. The faith and religious principles of those who choose to exercise their reproductive rights are rarely discussed. When they are, it is too often through the eyes of anti-abortion extremists who characterize those who disagree with them as irreligious.

This depiction is as far-removed from reality as the claim these same abortion opponents make to be the guardians of “women’s health” while depriving millions of women access to safe and secure facilities offering the reproductive medical care they seek. The reality is that women who choose to terminate their pregnancies, and those who support their right to do so, are often as religious, faithful, and dedicated to their spiritual and moral principles as those who stand on the other side of the ideological divide.

America is a nation of more than 320 million people and hundreds of religious denominations. The presumption that men and women of faith speak with one voice on the question of abortion, or that all principled individuals who believe in God must stand against abortion, is arrogant and wrong. The Pew Research Center has catalogued the view of 17 major religious groups on abortion, and this survey reveals a vast diversity of stances between and even within religious groups. From those who oppose abortion under all circumstances, to those who make exceptions for life, health, rape, or incest, to those who draw a line at the point of fetal viability, to those who advocate for the right to safe and accessible abortions, the beliefs of religious groups and persons of faith are as varied and diverse as this nation.

The insistence of far-right activists that they speak on behalf of all religious believers unmasks a deeper agenda of intolerance and exclusion. Disregarding the religious values of those who disagree is a furtive method of silencing religious dissent. If the “religious” view brooks no quarrel on questions of abortion, then religious groups and individual persons of faith who disagree with anti-abortion activists are recast in the role of the faithless. In so doing, the religious right imposes its theology on the entire country, assaulting not just the reproductive freedom of women, but also the religious freedom of all who believe differently from them.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, and in so doing will consider the constitutionality of onerous state restrictions imposing medically unnecessary requirements for reproductive health centers. These restrictions are a thinly veiled attempt to shut down these centers and restrict women’s constitutionally guaranteed access to abortions. The impact of these so-called TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws has been grievous, shuttering dozens of clinics and forcing women to travel hundreds of miles and even across state lines to exercise their reproductive freedom. As highlighted in the National Women’s Law Center amicus brief that the Anti-Defamation League and forty-six other organizations joined, the Texas law not only threatens women’s economic well-being, job security, and education attainment, but also has a particularly harmful impact on low-income women, women of color, women in low-wage jobs, and women who already have children.

In addition to the dozens of medical organizations, doctors, scientists, political organizations, and concerned citizens who have filed amicus briefs in support of the petitioners and in opposition to Texas’s unconstitutional TRAP laws, the fight for women’s reproductive freedom has also been joined by theologians, churches, religious groups, religious governing bodies, and more than 1,200 individual religious leaders. These voices matter. They shout with a thunderous voice against the lie that religious faith is incompatible with reproductive freedom.

Abortion is not just a question of personal autonomy, though that would be enough. It is about respect for religious freedom. A woman choosing whether to continue a pregnancy should be guided by her own conscience and religious values, not those imposed on her


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January 22, 2016

Forty-Three Years after Roe v. Wade We Continue to Fight for Reproductive Freedom

Forty-three years ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its watershed decision in Roe v. Wade, holding that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to access an abortion. By guaranteeing women the right to determine whether to continue a pregnancy, Roe has had far-reaching implications for women’s rights beyond the medical procedure itself. The ability to control family planning and their own bodies for the last two generations has played an invaluable role in helping women determine the course of their own lives, decide when or whether to have children, earn higher degrees, advance in the workplace, and attain more equal rights.

Photo Credit Debra Sweet Flickr

Photo Credit: Debra Sweet, Flickr

Still, the journey from Roe has not been an easy one. Four decades after Roe recognized the constitutional right to an abortion, there are more attempts to limit access—and ultimately ban—abortions than ever before. Between 2011 and 2015 there were nearly as many restrictions on abortion access enacted across the United States than in the prior fifteen years combined. In 2015 alone, lawmakers considered 396 bills that would have restricted access to abortions in 46 states. Though many were defeated, 17 states enacted a total of 57 new abortion restrictions. Many of the bills, though not explicitly about religion, have religious undertones, with legislators citing scripture during debate and seeking to enshrine their own particular religious view into law.

The latticework of state abortion restrictions now includes counseling requirements that force doctors to give women often scientifically questionable—and sometimes downright inaccurate—information about the procedures and their possible side effects. Other laws impose waiting periods that require women to come back to clinics days later, creating particularly onerous obstacles for women who sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles and lose hourly wages while away from work. Still others create restrictions on insurance coverage that make abortions almost impossible for poor people to access.

Other types of restrictions, which create what doctors widely agree are medically unnecessary requirements for clinics, are also thinly veiled attempts to shut down reproductive health centers. Such laws have become so widespread that they have their own term: targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. In Texas, for example, the law, among other things, requires clinics that provide abortion services to meet the same building, staffing and equipment requirements as “ambulatory surgical centers,” even though the procedures there do not require such things by medical standards. The law also requires doctors providing abortion services to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do in areas that largely oppose abortion rights or where there are only religiously-affiliated hospitals nearby. The law could shutter all but 10 abortion clinics, including every clinic west of San Antonio. Combined with Texas’ mandatory waiting period between seeing a doctor and having the procedure, that would effectively put abortion access out of reach for millions of women in Texas, who would often have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic and stay at least overnight.

A challenge to that Texas law is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, could have dramatic implications for women’s abilities to access abortion all around the country. The Supreme Court has said clearly and definitively in the past that states cannot place “undue burdens” on a woman’s ability to access an abortion before fetal viability, and that such burdens include “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.” If the Court finds that the ability to shutter clinics with technical and medically unnecessary restrictions does not qualify as an undue burden, however, states around the country could make abortions inaccessible to all but the most privileged who can afford to take time off work, travel long distances, and pay out of pocket for procedures to which they have a constitutionally guaranteed right.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the right to safe and legal abortions for many women hangs in the balance. We must all work to safeguard that fundamental constitutional right so that all women— regardless of where they live, what type of insurance they have, where they work, or how much money they have—can access the safe abortion services that have been so critical in advancing women’s rights and equality.

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January 15, 2016

Religious Freedom: Revolutionary and an American Strength

January 16th is the 2016 observance of National Religious Freedom Day, which was  established by Congress in 1993. It commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s 1786 adoption of the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, it was the blue print for the religious freedom protections found in the U.S. Constitution. Two-hundred thirty years later, however, these very liberties and principles are being challenged often in the name of“religious freedom.”


The Statute for Religious Freedom was a revolutionary change in the relationship between government and religion. It separated the two by prohibiting taxes supporting religion, providing free exercise of religion for all, and generally barring religious tests for civic participation. These principles became the law of the land with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment.

The Constitution’s religion clauses are the reason why a diversity of faiths has thrived in our nation for well-over 200 years. At their essence, the clauses prohibit government from sponsoring, supporting or sanctioning the imposition of religious doctrine or beliefs on citizens. They are a shield that safeguards the religious freedom of all Americans and our religious institutions.

Addressing these safeguards in her last opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor astutely observed:

[T]he goal of the Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: … Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?

Despite Justice O’Connor’s 2004 warning, today we find our Constitution’s religious freedom protections and principles misunderstood and under challenge. Most recently, leading candidates for the Presidency have said that Muslim Americans are unfit to serve as President and called for closing down Mosques, as well as banning Muslims from our shores. Such blatant religious intolerance is antithetical to our most core constitutional principles and unacceptable from any person of good faith let alone an individual aspiring to the Presidency. Our nation’s welcoming acceptance of all religious beliefs is a critical tool in countering those groups and nations that seek to impose their faith on others.

In the States, dozens of bills have been filed over the last several years in the name of “religious freedom” that would allow businesses – based on owners’ religious beliefs – to refuse customers. Although many of these bills are directed at our nation’s LGBT community, they also could be used to turn away customers because for example they are Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Mormon or Muslim. Such legislation fundamentally misapprehends the purpose and scope of the Constitution’s religious freedom protections. They were never intended as a sword to impose religious beliefs on others. The Constitution most certainly safeguards the religious beliefs and exercise of clergy, houses of worship, and individuals, including beliefs and practices about marriage. But for our pluralistic society and marketplace to properly function, they should not be used as a vehicle for discrimination.

The Constitution also guarantees the right of parents to send their children to religious schools and religious institutions to perform social and charitable services in-line with their religious beliefs. But they in no way require the government to fund either. Over the last 20 years, however, Congress and state legislatures have implemented programs requiring taxpayers to fund religious schools and charitable organizations, including those that discriminate or proselytize. Compelling taxpayers to fund religious institutions with which they are not affiliated or agree is antithetical to our constitutional principles. Properly interpreted, the Constitution should bar such government funding of religion.

Our religious freedom protections are one of America’s greatest strengths and a key reason why our Nation is exceptional. On National Religious Freedom Day all Americans should take a moment to appreciate their individual religious liberty and reflect on the fact that millions around the world are regularly subject to religious coercion or persecution. These freedoms must not be taken for granted. Americans of good faith should push back on efforts to misuse them in ways that impose particular religious beliefs or tests on their fellow citizens.






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