From Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU:
Earlier this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a campaign calling for a right to use religion to discriminate. They want us to think that religious liberty is in jeopardy and that they are the victims. Let's be clear: religious liberty is not at risk, the guarantee that everyone is treated fairly and can live their lives free from discrimination is what is at stake here.
We all have a right to our religious beliefs, but it does not give us, including the Catholic bishops, the right to use our religious beliefs to ignore the law and to put other people's health and lives in jeopardy or to treat people unfairly.
Unfortunately, this is part of a growing trend. We see with increasing frequency institutions and individuals claiming a right to discriminate in the name of religion. We see students training to be school counselors refusing to treat teens because they are gay; we see agencies that receive public funding withholding adoption licenses from same sex couples and we see the bishops calling upon Catholic hospitals to refuse to provide emergency abortion care. In each case, religion is being invoked as a license to discriminate.
We've seen this before. In the 1960s, we saw institutions object to laws requiring integration in restaurants because of sincerely held beliefs that god wanted the races to be separate. We saw religiously affiliated universities receiving public funding refuse to admit students who believed in interracial dating. In those cases, we recognized that requiring integration was not about violating religious liberty. We recognized that religious liberty does not mean imposing your views — however heartfelt — on others.
The bishop's campaign is no different. The bishops are a wealthy and powerful lobbying organization with political actors in every capitol across the country. We know that they don't represent the views of the average Catholic. Catholics overwhelmingly use contraception, have sex before marriage, and support gay rights, including legal recognition for same-sex couples and adoption by gays and lesbians.
From Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief:
The ACLU is a strong advocate for religious freedom; for nearly a century we have defended the rights of all religious believers — from majority and minority faiths alike — to practice their religion. We've defended the rights of students to wear Catholic rosaries to school and to hang the Ten Commandments on their lockers; we've represented Christian street preachers, picketers, and prisoners to worship according to their faith; and we've brought cases on behalf of churches, synagogues and mosques seeking permits to build houses of worship.
But the right of religious exercise is not absolute. Once organizations like the Bishops agree to perform vital social services on behalf of the government — with taxpayer funds -- they have to play by the rules, and ensure fair, nondiscriminatory access to those services.
Regulations like the HHS guidelines requiring insurance coverage for contraception already include an exemption for core religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, while ensuring that other organizations that have broader public mandates and functions who employ and serve diverse populations do not deny basic coverage for their employees, many of whom do not share their religious beliefs or views on contraception.
There's no reason for the administration to expand the exception and allow employers like hospitals and universities to discriminate by denying their employees and their families contraception coverage. Virtually all sexually active women use birth control -- no matter their religion. These guidelines are tremendous for women. It's critically important they stay intact.
The fundamental promise of religious liberty in this country doesn't create a blanket right to ignore civil rights laws, promote particular religious viewpoints and impose religious restrictions with taxpayer dollars, or deny critical health care to others.