Ahead of SCOTUS arguments: Real religious freedom means letting people make their own decisions | Opinion

Advocates rally on the grounds of the state Capitol during a national day of action on abortion rights on Tuesday, 5/21/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. MIcek)

By Marvin Marsh

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office will go before the Supreme Court to argue in defense of contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

They are up against the Trump administration, which is attempting to once again extend protection to employers and universities that invoke religious or moral beliefs to deny birth control coverage to employees and students.

How this case is decided has the potential to damage people’s access to birth control, and it could open the door for bosses and school administrators to restrict coverage and access to other critical health care.

I have been a Baptist pastor and faith leader in Pennsylvania for over 40 years. During that time, I have been privileged to accompany persons from both church and community through some of their most difficult moments. I know how essential affordable reproductive health care is to persons of faith as they work to plan if, when, and how they will become parents.

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My faith leads me to offer compassion. My faith leads me to defend the freedom of all persons to receive the health care they need regardless of their ability to pay. What my faith does not do is lead me to impose my beliefs on others. My own Baptist heritage has long instilled in me the cherished value of religious freedom. But true religious freedom means letting people make their own decisions — about morality, religion, and health care — based on their conscience and free from employer or government interference.

As a person of faith, I value every person as a moral decision-maker. Everyone has the capacity, right, and responsibility to make personal decisions about their reproductive lives — guided by their own conscience, personal circumstances, and the dictates of their own faith and beliefs. Everyone has the moral agency to decide for themselves, based on their own beliefs, whether and when to use birth control. Restricting access to contraception would have devastating consequences for women and families, especially those with low incomes.

When the government privileges the rights of one religious group over all others, like the Trump administration keeps trying to do, everyone suffers. We should be committed to justice, fairness, and care for the vulnerable. Many religiously-affiliated organizations, such as churches, schools, hospitals, and relief organizations, employ people in all sorts of roles without regard to their personal faith identification. Doctors, nurses, bookkeepers, teachers, janitors and more should not be expected to sacrifice their health care coverage because their employer opposes personal decisions that have nothing to do with their jobs.

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Many faith communities maintain silence around reproductive health care, including access to birth control. I believe that those seeking to use religion as a cover for limiting reproductive health care access are counting on our silence to get away with it. But we have not always been so silent. In fact, beginning in the late 1920s and the ’30s, many Jewish and Protestant groups formally endorsed contraception access. This included rabbis from Reform and Conservative Judaism and ministers from Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.

Decades later in 2014, more than 1,000 faith leaders from 45 states and 35 religious traditions signed onto an open letter declaring that, “No single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on contraception, nor should government take sides on religious differences. We oppose any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning pregnancy, childbirth, or contraception the law of any country in the world. Religious groups themselves must respect the beliefs and values of other faiths, since no single faith can claim final moral authority in domestic or international discourse.”

It is time for people of faith and conscience once again to speak out against this cynical use of one of our most cherished liberties. We must learn about the case, speak up, and talk to our friends and families — and especially our own faith communities — about our perspectives and support for birth control.

Let’s remind our leaders that — particularly in the midst of a pandemic — our government should be protecting America’s workers and students, not putting their health at risk and calling it religious freedom. Religion should never be used to take away the rights of others.

Marvin Marsh is a retired Baptist pastor and Board Chair of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. He writes from King of Prussia