January 21, 2019

Trump Tramples on Rights and Religious Liberty

I’m worried about our right to religious liberty; about it being used as an excuse for discrimination; about conservative, Christian beliefs being given special treatment by our government; and about our right to religious liberty suffering long-term damage because it’s been cheapened and made partisan by extreme claims.

Some may be surprised to hear that from me. Conservatives have painted me as a secular warrior against religious liberty fighting only for reproductive justice, but I’m a person of faith and the daughter of a pastor. I’m active in the Jewish community and recently traveled to Israel to tour holy sights. Back in 2012, I did testify before members of Congress and took on Rush Limbaugh over insurance covering birth control for women at religiously affiliated organizations. Those who wished to deny insurance coverage claimed that religious liberty required they be allowed to interfere in women’s access to reproductive health care.

I don’t agree. Their interpretation of religious liberty goes much further than the constitutional framers intended, upsetting a balance between competing individual liberties: the right to practice one’s religion and the right to be free of another’s religion. That balance has been a defining characteristic of our democracy, and one that we should hold dear. It also is particularly important to the Jewish community, Muslims, Buddhists and others who don’t practice the dominant Christian religion.

That’s why it’s especially upsetting to see the damage being done by the Trump administration. Not only is this administration using religious liberty for conservative Christian beliefs as a justification to trample the rights of women and LGBTQ persons, but in the process it is undermining our nation’s long respect for religious liberty. Allowing claims of religious liberty that are so extreme has made it a partisan issue for our country, which is a sad day indeed.

Recently, the Trump administration issued regulations that allow any company, including for-profit, publicly traded Fortune 500 corporations, to exclude birth control from health-care plans if the company has a religious objection. Surely, we can agree that we have lost our appropriate balance when we’re more concerned with the religious beliefs of Chevron than with the woman who works there and can’t get the medical coverage she needs.

Allowing claims of religious liberty that are so extreme has made it a partisan issue for our country, which is a sad  day indeed.

The Justice Department also directed that federal agencies should accommodate religious objections. A homophobic federal employee need only say that religion is why he won’t process the Social Security benefits of a same-sex spouse. This policy indicates a striking lack of understanding of this country’s history of discrimination. For decades, racists claimed God’s will required segregation and criminalization of interracial marriage. We are not so far from that past.

The Trump administration continues down the slippery slope and now has argued that not only do Fortune 500 companies have a religion, but the federal government has a religiously informed “conscience,” which should supersede the constitutionally protected right of a detained immigrant to access an abortion. Thankfully, the D.C. Court of Appeals put a stop to that argument. There is nothing more personal than a woman’s decisions about her own body. She must be able to make those in accord with her own beliefs, not a different religious belief imposed on her by her government.

This concern about a government-sponsored religion being imposed on those of a minority faith is the exact reason that our forebears fled their homelands to establish a country with freedom of, and from, religion. Whether women, LGBTQ persons or people of color are being discriminated against in the name of religion or having religious doctrine imposed on their life choices by their boss or by the government, we all must stand together for our tradition of religious liberty, not the Trump administration’s vision of religious domination.

For the other side of the debate, read Dave Andrusko’s column here.

Sandra Fluke is a Los Angeles social justice attorney and the state director for an advocacy nonprofit. She is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and a former candidate for California State Senate.