March 19, 2012


I posted an article last Thursday about a proposed law in Arizona. It requires that a woman seeking medical coverage for birth control pills provide her employer with a note from her doctor verifying that the pills are prescribed for medical treatment and not for contraception. Proponents of the law argue the procedure is necessary to protect the religious freedom of employers who are required to provide health insurance but are opposed to contraception.

On the surface, the intent looks innocent enough. Few would argue against anyone’s right to be governed by his religious beliefs. But take the principle too far and one man’s freedom becomes another man’s tyranny. Health insurance, like a paycheck, is a form of compensation exchanged for labor. How that compensation is used is a decision that belongs with the worker who earned it, not with the one who paid for the service. Consider the Pandora’s box we would open if we legitimized as “religious freedom” an employer’s right to dictate when, where and how medical and salary compensation is used. Suppose an employer belongs to a religion that considers  blood transfusions a sin? Does he have the right to intervene in his worker’s treatment where a blood transfusion is prescribed? Or if the employer believes that any medical assistance other than prayer is a sin, what then? Should a worker injured on the job be prayed over rather than treated for a broken neck at a hospital?   

Are there any limits to religious freedom once the employer’s right is as broadly interpreted as the proposed law in Arizona? If the employer is a Mormon does it follow that he can deny his employees the freedom to purchase wine or coffee? Shall his workers be required to turn in their grocery slips to the accounting office each month so the employer can be assured that none of his religious taboos have been violated? Or suppose the employer is Muslim? Shall he be allowed to segregate the work place so that men and women occupy separate areas? Can he require his female employees to wear burkas? Or if a woman is in her period, shall she be forced to retreat to a red tent, a religious practice described in Anita Diamant’s novel, “The Red Tent?” 

As extreme as these suggestions seem, they are the logical consequences of allowing “religious freedom” to be interpreted too broadly. Worse, when religious precepts are imbedded into law, such as the one in Arizona, the nation as a whole is endangered. We exchange our democracy for a theocracy.

History has shown us that where zealotry gains a foothold, women are the first to suffer. But as we saw with Inquisition and the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, religious tyranny honors no borders and exempts no sex. If we do not object to this cancerous notion of “religious freedom” which is growing, then one day men will be herded with women into the red tent.