Sixth place (tie I): Graduate/mature student essay contest by Ashley Reynolds

A haven from oppression

By Ashley Reynolds
FFRF awarded Ashley $400 for her essay.

United States Constitution, Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” The reverence given to both aspects of religious liberty by our nation’s founders comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with our colonial history, as the New World served as a haven for the many who sought to escape the oppressive Church of England.

Today it would seem that history does repeat itself, as liberty-minded Americans once again find themselves as underdogs in a battle for freedom from religious oppression. A legislative battle is under way to radically redefine “religious liberty.” By definition, liberty means to have the greatest degree of freedom possible without infringing on another’s rights. Yet the purported religious liberties of some are clashing with the basic rights of others, and these clashes are being legally sanctioned, defying the spirit of the Establishment Clause.

Many states have almost no legal consequences for parents who decline medical treatment for their children in favor of faith-based healing. Similarly, despite the 109-year-old ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, all but three states grant parents vaccine exemptions on the basis of religion.

Gays and women are subject to ever-increasing discrimination despite constitutional protections. Nine states have what some disrespectfully call “no promo homo” laws denouncing homosexuality. Contradicting Lawrence v. Texas, some even criminalize consensual sex between adults.

And, after Arizona’s failed attempt to let business owners refuse service to same-sex couples for religious reasons, at least five more states are looking at similar legislation.

Perhaps one recent case stands above the rest as a red flag: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In the fall of 2012, Hobby Lobby’s owners filed a lawsuit alleging that the Affordable Care Act forced the Green family to act in violation of their beliefs. The Greens falsely claimed that emergency contraceptives like Plan B and Ella, as well as copper and hormonal intrauterine devices, are abortifacients.

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court sided 5-4 with Hobby Lobby. In the words of dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the majority ventured into a “minefield” by radically expanding the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to include corporate personhood.

Within 24 hours, the court issued orders on six similar cases that extended the Hobby Lobby exception to all drugs classified as contraceptives. Within 48 hours, the court issued a procedural ruling in Wheaton College v. Burwell that the employer couldn’t even be compelled to submit a form to the government stating religious objections to contraceptives, as the mere act of doing so might trigger a third party to provide coverage.

Religious liberty no longer just means a woman has the freedom to choose whether or not to use contraception; it now means a company can choose whether or not to even give her the option.

Burwell is another chip off the decaying façades of Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, which have been weakened by a string of state laws and court rulings making contraception and abortion less accessible. The Religious Right is successfully launching attacks on women from a new strategic position. If they can’t deny reproductive rights entirely, they will circumvent them by cutting off insurance funding. America is an idea as much as a nation, the idea being that people are endowed with a basic human right to as much freedom as possible without infringing on others. Our founding documents reflect this desire for liberty, and we are governed by a Constitution that, in no uncertain terms, especially recognizes the importance of religious freedom. America can return to her roots as a haven from oppression, but we must take this clear stand: One’s freedom ends where another’s begins.

Ashley Reynolds, 28, Perkins, Okla., is pursuing an M.S. in teaching, learning and leadership with an option in secondary social studies education at Oklahoma State University, where she earned a B.A. in political science in 2010.

Freedom From Religion Foundation