Friday, April 04, 2014

Who Gets to Pick?

Bear with me. This one will be a little long, but it needs to be.

Those who serve in ordained ministry as I do (and many who are not ordained) learn how to serve others in their most difficult times during a stint of training called CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education. One spends a summer in full-time work, or a season in part-time work, in a hospital or a hospice center or another venue where one walks with those who are struggling, dying, supporting a loved one, and those who work in the business of healing.

This training has some obvious benefits, and some not-so-obvious ones. When I did CPE at Children’s Hospital in Washington DC, I learned how to manage my own emotions so I could be present for patients and parents. I learned how to hold a baby with a hundred lines and tubes running into a miniscule body. I learned how to talk to nurses who were emotionally exhausted after a string of deaths in a unit. I learned how to listen rather than preach, to hold a hand, to sing to a dying child. 

And I also learned, sometimes the hard way, that not everyone held the same religious beliefs that I did, and it was not my job to convert them in the midst of a medical crisis, or to convert them to do what I thought was right. I had to trust them, their own faith background, their decisions in congruence with that faith background, and on occasion I needed to let go of my judgment as to those decisions. It was not my job to reshape them when they were vulnerable, it was to pray and to hold and to listen and to wonder with them how and why and when and if. Even if their understanding of the hows and whys and whens and ifs were very, very different than mine.

I bumped up against all sorts of those differences. Children’s is one of those places where parents bring their children from Kuwait and Kazakhstan – halfway across the world - as well as Columbia Heights and Kalorama – the other side of town. Families are atheists or Buddhists, Muslim or Roman Catholic, AME Zion or Episcopalian, Orthodox Jewish or Bahai. Part of my training was in respecting the beliefs and decisions of others, even when those beliefs were very different than mine…perhaps especially when those beliefs were very different than mine. Decisions about continuing or discontinuing care, about what treatments were and were not permissible, about what might properly prepare a child for death if it was imminent. I had to learn that it wasn’t about me when a family insisted on a Roman catholic priest baptize their dying baby, even if the priest couldn’t get there for twenty minutes and it might not be soon enough. I had to learn that some parents believed that their sins might have caused their child’s genetic malformation, and although I might gently suggest that others had different beliefs, it was also important that I not say things that would call into question the foundations of their faith when they most needed it.

That is consistent not only with the beliefs of my Episcopal Church, respecting the dignity of every human person, but also with the intent of the framers of the US Constitution, which clearly supports the separation of church and state. Those founding fathers had seen the downside of a state church, where doctrine had been shaped in some ways by politics, so this was important. We continue to cherish religious independence and the right of each of us to worship and believe as we want, and that’s a good thing.

So why did I just run through this personal history of CPE and the Constitution? 

One name. Hobby Lobby.

It’s a great craft store. They’ve got the things we need to do projects at home or at church, at good prices. I have nothing against the company.

I do, however, have an issue with their current battle to avoid paying for insurance coverage for birth control methods they consider abortifacients, and for coverage for abortion itself. The Green family, founders of this publicly-traded company, is battling all the way to the Supreme Court to be excused from this obligation under the Affordable Care Act because of their religious beliefs, which find the termination of life prior to birth to be anathema. The question that has been posed to SCOTUS is “whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”[1]

Let me be clear: I do not like abortion. It grieves my heart that someone would feel the need to terminate a pregnancy. But as a woman in my 60s, over the decades I have known a number of situations where it was the only, albeit awful, choice in the eyes of the person who was pregnant.

Let me be equally clear on this point: I do think birth control is the best way to avoid having to make that awful choice. And scientific opinion about whether a drug or device that prevents pregnancy does so by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg or by preventing fertilization is more unclear that some folks are willing to admit. And the scientific opinion of laypeople (not scientists) such as the Hobby Lobby family doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight in my eyes.

So what are we faced with in this case? A group of non-scientists, the Green family, are attempting to impose their understanding of birth control technology and their religious beliefs (nothing that could lead to termination of a pregnancy regardless of the situation of the pregnancy) on their employees, regardless of the understandings and beliefs of those employees. And in doing so, they impose their religion on their employees. If an employee needs an IUD to prevent pregnancy and the employee in consultation with their pastor or faith leader finds no problem with IUDs, but it is not covered by employee health insurance (thus making it unaffordable), the company is imposing its religious beliefs. The Greens are saying their religious beliefs are more important than the religious beliefs of their employees. Their religious freedom is more important than the religious freedom of their employees.

Isn’t this why the framers put the first amendment to the Constitution in such stark terms – it defines an absolute freedom of belief. No laws can be passed by Congress to hinder anyone’s right to practice their religion. Even if we find some elements of their religion strange or problematic. Even if we disagree with their theology.

Because the framers believed that the state has a compelling interest in protecting this fundamental freedom. And because if this freedom is compromised, others can be compromised as well, and then we are back in a world where the powerful define what we believe and we have no choices.

So what does this look like on the ground? We do not force Jehovah’s Witnesses to have blood transfusions, even though it may not make sense to us, because it is a fundamental religious belief. 
Nor do we force people to “pull the plug” on those in a persistent vegetative state, even though we may believe that this is simply painfully prolonging a life through technology when it is time for that soul to return to its Maker, if the loved ones of that person are in agreement that their faith says this is wrong. Nor do we force people to terminate pregnancies when prenatal testing has revealed grievous medical problems that inevitably will lead to death, because for some people, such termination is a sin against God.

No. We let them make medical choices in partnership with their pastor or spiritual advisor and their medical team. We trust them to make those choices, and we do not force them to make choices that are not congruent with what they believe. But this is what the Greens, the Hobby Lobby folks, have done. Instead of law, they want to use economics, but the net result is the same: we lose the power to use our free will to make choices that align with our beliefs. And that is un-American. It is also un-Christian.

When someone says “these are the parameters I’ve decided are appropriate to limit your free will,” they are putting themselves higher than our Creator. God didn’t limit our free will, even though we gave ample cause for our Maker to do so, over and over again. God gave us commandments, but God also gave us choice.

The women who work for Hobby Lobby don’t need their employers to act as God, defining how they can choose (within the limits of the law).  If we trust that all of us are given free will and the power of reason and God’s grace, we must respect women’s choices. After all, God does.


[This blog post originally appeared on the RevgalsBlogPals "The Pastoral is Political" blog.]

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