Thursday's House Oversight Committee hearing on the Obama administration's contraception coverage mandate sparked a lot of discussion on religious freedom and conscience. It also sparked a lot of discussion on who gets to speak for whom.
"What I want to know is: Where are the women?" Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) demanded before she walked out in protest. A photo of five men testifying before the panel quickly circulated on social network sites. At the Washington Post website today, Susan Thistlethwaite picked up on the theme: "Where is women's religious freedom and freedom of conscience?" she wrote. "Women can only conclude from this skewed panel that the chairman does not think they are created equally in God's image, and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights."
I would agree with Thistlethwaite that indeed, women are created equally, and given inalienable rights. Women, of course, deserve religious freedom. But I disagree with her suggestion that religious freedoms differ for men and women. Or, as she suggests, that that religious freedom is based upon an individual's conscience.
"In virtually all religious traditions, 'listening to the heart' and being able to act on the promptings of conscience is the absolute, non-negotiable bottom line for having religious freedom," she wrote.
But "everyone did what was right in their own eyes" makes for poor consciences and bad law. There is a good reason why U.S. courts' decisions on religious free exercise take into account actual religious teachings rather than arbitrary, personal definitions of what is right and wrong. My faith tradition has thousands of years of historical doctrine that richly informs all of our moral and ethical decision-making. Some of it is about the role of men and women—and most of it finds gender differences irrelevant. It is about humanity as a whole. Our faith is not about petty biological differences and personal egos. It is about the salvation of the entire human race. Anything that forces us to act contrary to the dictates of our faith is an affront to all that our forefathers had designed and for which our men (and women) have fought.
Honestly, I should have expected the angry blowback yesterday from the feminist crowd regarding the "all-male" panel. The outcry caused me to step back and admire an adept strategy by some to throw a red herring in the way of public disputation and detract from the real issue of concern.
As a Christian woman, I applauded this discussion by the House oversight committee on threats to our freedom of religion. Silly me: Who knew this (and every other topic under God) must be primarily about exclusively women's rights? Silly me: I thought this was about my freedom to exercise my religious beliefs in a way that honors my faith tradition's historical doctrines and practice. Silly me: I thought this was about the Constitution.
I work for a self-insured religious employer. In fact, I work for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which was represented on the panel by the Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, president of our 2.5 million-member national denomination. For years my family and I have been covered by our church's insurance plan, which has never provided contraception or birth control in its coverage. Our health plan doesn't cover these products because our church body values the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and because the mechanism of action for the various categories of hormonal birth control products can be unclear. Rather than guesstimate on what classifies as an early abortifacient and what doesn't, our health plan doesn't cover any form of contraception in order to protect the consciences of the many members of this plan who might share different ideas. I never expected our insurance plan to cover a drug that, to me, seemed a matter of personal choice. After all, they don't cover my vitamins either.