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March 2, 2016 4

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 Off

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 Off

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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