Isn’t it time for freedom FROM religion?
When Republican-controlled state legislatures began enacting laws allowing pharmacists to withhold contraception, we were told that druggists’ “freedom of religion” necessitated imposing needless inconveniences on patients, including rape victims. When cases began cropping up of pharmacists not only refusing contraception, but holding on to prescriptions, we were told their “freedom of religion” was more important than whatever damages resulted to patients from having to obtain duplicate ones. When Republicans were screeching about the rule requiring parochial employers to provide insurance for contraception, we were told that religious people’s “freedom of religion” was more important than others’ autonomy, health and even life.
And so it’s no surprise that it has now come to this: a crazed religious fundamentalist jail guard, whose “freedom of religion” required nothing less than an ability to force a detained rape victim — a victim of a violent crime totally and absolutely within the guard’s power — to bear her rapist’s child.
A Tampa woman identified only as R.W. was raped. She went to a Rape Crisis Center, where a rape kit was done, and she was given emergency contraception – two pills that had to be taken 12 hours apart. She took the first pill, then went to report her rape to the police. Thereupon, it was discovered that the police had an outstanding warrant on R.W., and R.W. was arrested. At the time of booking, the jail staff confiscated the second pill. When R.W. asked for it the next morning, jail employee Michele Spinelli refused to hand it over, on the ground that contraception is against Michele Spinelli’s religious beliefs. Luckily, R.W. did not get pregnant — but it certainly wasn’t for Spinelli’s lack of trying to make that otherwise.
News sources that are reporting on this story are making it seem like justice has triumphed, but if you read beyond the headlines, you’ll see just how small that “triumph” really is. R.W.’s lawsuit for gender discrimination was allowed to go forward — but it doesn’t mean that it won’t later be dismissed on summary judgment or that a jury will eventually find in R.W.’s favor. Moreover, the judge’s decision, a provisional victory as it is, hinges on the fact that Spinelli was not informed of any policy regarding prisoners’ birth control, thus making her the “policy-maker” in this situation. This means, that, had the County had a policy of allowing prisoners’ their contraception and Spinelli deliberately violated it, R.W. would have had no case. Take a moment to wrap your mind around that one.
But most importantly, whether or not R.W.’s lawsuit succeeds, there is no indication that any institutional changes have been made. I was not able to find any confirmation as to whether Spinelli was fired or otherwise disciplined, but I guarantee you, she was not. Freedom of religion is the “third rail” of American politics, and the County, or the private contractor who actually employed Spinelli, will never do a thing to her for fear she will sue, and bring the fury of far-right pundits on their heads, to boot. In the current political and legal climate, Spinelli’s lawsuit would have much more traction than R.W.’s, and this being Florida, she’d probably walk away with a good chunk of change. From the County’s standpoint, Judge Kovachevich’s decision tells government bureaucracies exactly what they need to do: enact an “official” policy that entitles prisoners to access to their birth control, and let religious employees do whatever they want, short of murdering prisoners for reasons of faith (though that may too eventually be allowed).
I have to wonder: how far will this “freedom of religion” encroach on the rights and liberties of others before we set some limit to it? Should we allow a prison guard who happens to be a Jehova’s Witness’ the “freedom” to prevent the hospitalization of a critically ill patient on the ground that the guard’s religion prohibits blood transfusions? Should any prison guard be able to withhold medical care because, say, his or her religion says illness is divine punishment for criminals? Will religious fundamentalists be completely above the law one day? Will we have public floggings and burnings-at-the-stake in the town square before society realizes at long last that some people’s “freedom of religion” should not be allowed to trump other people’s civil rights and due process? How long will we continue to excuse fundamentalists from doing their jobs, abiding by their legal duties and acting within the bounds of the law?
I think it’s pretty clear at this point that we have oodles of “freedom of religion” in this country. I think it’s time we started getting some freedom from religion. I want to have a legal rule that says that if a person’s religion makes it impossible for them to carry out their duties as public servants, fiduciaries, or health care professionals, it is not a violation of the First Amendment to fire them and strip them of their licenses. One’s “freedom of religion” does not presuppose being excused from secular obligations.