Reform Jewish Leader Criticizes One-Sided Contraception Hearings

Rabbi David Saperstein: “The government has a compelling interest of the first order in ensuring that all individuals are able to access necessary services.”

— Sean Thibault or Katharine Nasielski

Bishop William Lori, representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Relations Hearing entitled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”  In it, he analogized the government mandate that most employers must cover birth control, without co-pay, to a hypothetical situation in which a kosher restaurant would be mandated to include pork on the menu because of its health benefits. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement in response:

Today, an all male ‘witness’ panel was allowed to speak at the GOP’s hearing examining the Obama administration’s new regulation requiring employers and insurers to provide contraception coverage to employees. When Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was presented to testify on behalf of the Minority, she was shown the door. She would have been the only female voice speaking on behalf of the millions of women who support access to birth control. Here is the basis of her testimony, had she been allowed to speak.

Bishop Lori chose to use a vivid and unusual analogy between religious employers providing comprehensive health care coverage to their employees and kosher delis being forced by government to sell pork on the grounds that pork is good for you.  While I appreciate the humor and creativity of this analogy that sought to raise important issues of balancing free exercise of religion against other compelling government interests, picturesque analogies are not always the most effective or accurate.  Unfortunately, this analogy is flawed in ways that obscure rather than illuminate the important moral, religious and legal issues involved.

First, the government’s interests in the functioning of the health care system  are manifestly far greater than mandating stores sell a particular healthy food, pork or otherwise, and the analogy unintentionally trivializes the need to ensure all Americans have access to quality healthcare in a manner that does not discriminate against women. Indeed, every individual partakes of the health care system at some point in his or her life – whether it is in the process of birth, death or points in-between. That care is paid for by the individual or the public; either directly or through some form of private or public insurance. As such, the government has a compelling interest of the first order in ensuring that all individuals are able to access necessary services. In contrast, no one needs to eat in a particular restaurant and no one needs to eat one particular form of (assumed) healthy food, pork or otherwise.

More after the jump.

When pulling together a panel for a Congressional hearing on birth control, wouldn’t you think it would have at least one woman on it? Come on! This is what Rep. Darrell Issa, the House Oversight Committee Chairman, said when turning away the sole female voice that would have been heard:

“As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

Second, Bishop Lori’s argument also fails to distinguish for-profit consumer relationships from employer-employee relations.  The Supreme Court has long upheld a broad range of government regulation, including religious employers, health and safety requirements, requirements to pay into social security (which was upheld by the Supreme Court over employer’s religious objections in United States v. Lee), bans on a number of forms of discrimination (again with some accommodation of religious free exercise) and requirements that employers accommodate the religious practices of its employees, unless doing so would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  This is quite different than the government trying to regulate what foods a restaurant must provide to its customers, where there is a much lower government interest and no well-settled pattern of government regulation.

Third, Bishop Lori’s analogy compares the limited religious exemption for kosher caterers allied with synagogues with the broad exemption that the Obama Administration has now established that would protect the religious conscience of employers with moral objections to contraceptive coverage. Not only will a church, synagogue or other house of worship, parochial school, or missionizing group not be required to include contraception in its health plan, but now religiously affiliated entities, such as church affiliated hospitals, social service entities and universities, will also be exempt from providing the coverage, under the compromise announced last Friday. This compromise was praised by Sister Carol Keehan, President of Catholic Health Services, who said she was “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection” was accomplished. What Bishop Lori did not elucidate was the moral basis for the Church to oppose the government providing millions of women with basic health care services, services that ironically will cut significantly unwarranted pregnancies and attendant abortions.

Finally, the attention to Bishop Lori’s analogy should not obscure the greatest flaw of these hearings. The House Oversight Committee did not allow witnesses opposed to the church’s position to testify and, among the witnesses who testified, not a single one was a woman. Is diverse representative discourse not the point of Congressional hearings?  Does the committee so lack confidence in the free marketplace of ideas that is at the core of our democratic system of government?  I urge the committee to convene hearings that can truly debate the important issues involved. As someone who believes in ensuring both access to contraception for all women and the robust protection of religious autonomy, it seems clear that the fundamental rights of all women and the fundamental rights of religious conscience deserve no less.

Reform Movement to Komen on Defunding of Planned Parenthood

Though the Komen Foundation announced that it would award no new contracts to Planned Parenthood clinics, Brinker denied that Komen was actually “defunding” Planned Parenthood, a technical point based on the fact that a few grants have yet to expire.

This afternoon, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to Ambassador Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

We urge you to use your leadership in Komen for the Cure to reinstate funding to PPFA for breast cancer screening, to reconsider the standard by which the organization makes funding decisions, and to continue to fight for the health and lives of women everywhere.

The full text of the letter follows the jump.

Dear Ambassador Brinker,

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 1800 Reform rabbis, and the Women of Reform Judaism, which represents more than 65,000 women in nearly 500 women’s groups in North America and around the world, we write to express our disappointment in Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to halt its longstanding partnership with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, thereby withholding funds to fight breast cancer where they are most needed.

Komen for the Cure has helped hundreds of thousands of women in the fight against breast cancer, and has educated millions, bringing the once taboo and closeted subject of breast cancer into the public domain. Indeed, the global impact that you and Komen for the Cure have had was precisely why we were so pleased to bestow upon you the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award at our recent Biennial convention. And this is why we are so deeply disappointed by Komen’s decision to cease funding mammograms provided by PPFA in the face of a politically-motivated investigation unrelated to PPFA’s breast cancer screenings for vulnerable women.

At the same December Biennial, the Women of Reform Judaism honored PPFA President Cecile Richards and applauded PPFA’s work to advance women’s health. It is painful for us now to see politics and partisanship interfere with and undermine efforts to support women who lack the resources they need for preventive medical services like mammograms. Each year Planned Parenthood’s network of more than 800 clinics nationwide provides nearly 830,000 breast exams. PPFA has stated that, over the past five years, 170,000 of the centers’ 4 million breast exams conducted were a direct result of Komen grants. Halting Komen grant money to PPFA is contrary to your organization’s mission and interests, directly and unfairly threatening the health and safety of women.

Upon accepting the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, you told the story of two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, marching together to combat breast cancer in the first Race for the Cure in Israel. You explained with admiration that, in the course of the walk, they were able to forget the political climate that divided them and they bonded instead over the common cause of women’s health. We now urge Komen to follow their example by rejecting efforts to sow division among women’s health advocates and providers and refusing to sacrifice the lives of women on the altar of political ideology.

We understand that this funding decision comes from a new standard employed by Komen for the Cure that defunds organizations under government investigation. While we understand the desire to have an objective policy in place, this particular standard is misguided, threatening more than just grants to PPFA. We believe there are less partisan ways to accomplish your goals. For example, a standard that is linked to investigations carried out by law enforcement is more likely to be free of partisanship. The standard that Komen has established allows Komen’s funding decisions to be dictated by the political whims, partisanship and pet issues of individual members of Congress, who persuade their committees to launch an investigation.  This new standard may appear to extricate Komen from politicization, yet in reality it leaves the group open to even greater politicization.

We urge you to use your leadership in Komen for the Cure to reinstate funding to PPFA for breast cancer screening, to reconsider the standard by which the organization makes funding decisions, and to continue to fight for the health and lives of women everywhere.

We look forward to your prompt reply.

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism

Faith Leaders Commemorate 9/11 and Denounce Islamaphobia

When the fires of intolerance are spreading, will we raise our voices in protest?  Will we stand with Muslim Americans when emotions are raw and the danger is greatest?

— Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism

Ten years ago this weekend, a terror attack changed the world and changed America forever.  It left Americans frightened and dismayed, and filled American hearts with bewilderment and enduring rage.

We stand here today as representatives of America’s great religious traditions.  What has been our role in healing our nation?

I suggest that we have had, and still have, four major tasks.

More after the jump.
Our first task is to help America remember the victims and to offer their families comfort and healing.  Sometimes, let’s admit, 9/11 has become a slogan or a cause rather than a human tragedy.  But we in the religious world are not distracted; we focus on the lives snuffed out and on those who suffered most.  We pray for the bereaved and extend a loving hand to the injured and traumatized.  We know that news may move on, but for those affected, the loss and the pain remain.

Our second task is to educate about the meaning of 9/11.  And education means that religious communities must confront the extremists in their midst; if we cower in the face of fanatic minorities, we are lost. This is true for Muslims, and it is true for us all. And education also means that when we look at 9/11, we must absolutely refuse to justify, excuse, or explain away what happened.

The attacks of 9/11 were acts of unmitigated evil, carried out by men who polluted religion by coupling it with violence.  As religious leaders, we know something about this; after all, the connection between religion and violence is set out in the story of Cain and Abel at the very beginning of the Biblical story of humankind.

And we know, better than anyone, that there is no such thing as murdering your way to salvation; we know that ruthless acts, calculated to produce shock and outrage, are an affront to God and to everything we hold dear; we know that whatever explanations might now be offered, those responsible for this evil are those who chose to kill in God’s name.

And because it is hard to comprehend evil on such a scale, when we talk about 9/11, we try to talk about flesh-and-blood people – like two-year old Christine Hanson, sitting on her father’s lap on United Airlines Flight 175 on her way to Disneyland.  We remind Americans that taking Christine’s life was blasphemous and repugnant; and we remind them too of the profound reverence that we all must have for human life and the integrity of creation.

Our third task is to resist with all of our might the view that the extremist fringe that carried out and supported this violent act is the voice of Islam in America or in the world.

To give you a sense of how difficult this is, permit me to say a few words about what is happening here in America.

I believe that America has done a better job than most of the world, including Christian Europe, of embracing its Muslim citizens and welcoming its Muslim immigrants.  What makes the United States unique is our religiosity and our pluralism.  Americans respect religion and believe in God, and they eventually learn to respect religions different from their own.  Add to that the great principle of church-state separation and we can be confident that for Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, full religious freedom will eventually be assured.

Nonetheless, there is cause for concern.

The events of 9/11 and other events since, such as the Park51 controversy, opened a door that some have been quick to rush through.  Ten years after 9/11, negative views of Muslim Americans continue to rise.  Ten years after 9/11, it has somehow become respectable to verbally attack Muslims and Islam in America.  Vital distinctions are being blurred by people who should know better.  I am referring to distinctions between the radical, fanatic version of Islam, held by a tiny minority of Muslims, and centrist Islam; I am referring to distinctions between the moderate majority and the extremists on the margins.

There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements, when the sins of the few are applied to the group as a whole.

I have watched in astonishment as prominent politicians, including candidates for President of the United States, have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.

And if all of this were not enough, we have been witness to a paranoid fantasy about Sharia law taking over America by stealth.  In the last year, more than two dozen states have proposed legislation outlawing the use of Shariah law in state courts.  Louisiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma have already approved such measures, which I do not hesitate to call anti-Muslim.

When I hear such things, I can barely contain myself.  What if a state were to put forward a bill that referenced Jewish law or Canon law in a similar way?  Jews and Catholics would be outraged, and rightly so.  To say that these laws are unnecessary is an understatement of monumental proportions.  Have these lawmakers not heard of the First Amendment, which already prohibits courts from adopting any kind of religious code as law of the land?

These laws serve only to do two things:  single out Muslims as second-class citizens and undermine the Constitution of the United States.

Many Muslim Americans that I know are feeling beleaguered right now, and I would be surprised if they were not.

But now the good news:  this is a great and wonderful country.  And with President Obama and President Bush before him leading the way, most Americans still see this country as a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different and to follow our own religious path.  

Yes, troubling things are happening now, due in part to the economic climate.  As we know, economic uncertainty is often a fertile ground for hatred.

But we will not accept excuses.  And the fact is that good people are fighting back.  The people in this room are fighting back.  And most Americans, with the right leadership and inspiration, will be proud to stand with the forces of inclusion and to oppose the forces of intolerance in this land.

And that brings me to our fourth and final task:  to offer hope, and faith.

This is a difficult time for America.  Politics is inherently divisive, and never more so than now.  When everyone is shouting; when every voice on talk radio or cable news is trying to be the loudest and the most shocking; when it seems that our problems are too great to solve and our hatred too deep to cure, it is the task of religion to offer healing and a sense of the common good.

And when our Muslim neighbors are under attack, the best way to do that is not with theology, but with personal friendships, and with concrete, grassroots, hands-on projects that bring us together.  And that is exactly what we have been doing, and we will give you the details in a minute.

And our message today is:  timing is everything.  The time for coalitions of decency to come together to fight for our Muslim neighbors and for religious understanding is now, when it is needed most.  

This is our challenge: When the fires of intolerance are spreading, will we raise our voices in protest?  Will we stand with Muslim Americans when emotions are raw and the danger is greatest?  We will, I believe.  It won’t be easy, it will take work, but we will do so.  Because that is the moral course.

So I end with the hope – that is our common hope – that Muslims, Jews, and Christians will not permit fanaticism to grow or prejudice to harden; that as the sacred day of 9/11 approaches, we will honor the memory of those who died by teaching our children to honor life; and that here, in America, as seekers of God and children of Abraham, we will refuse to grant a victory to those who work to divide us; that here in America, we will reclaim our common heritage and find a common path.

Thank you for being here and for joining with us.