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Whose freedom are the bishops protecting? [Commentary]

The rallying cry "freedom to serve" will soon be heard in Baltimore as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty launches its annual "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign tomorrow. If you think this is an odd phrase to refer to the demand that religious employers be exempt from providing contraception access for female employees, you're not alone. The refrain also rings hollow for women and men everywhere who, because of the bishops' discriminatory practices, are not free to serve.

"Sandra," who asked that her real name not be used for fear of professional retribution, took a pay cut to do the type of work she loves and became a science teacher at a Catholic school. She soon realized that working under the jurisdiction of a local diocese came with a hefty price tag. When she went to fill her usual birth control prescription, she was shocked to discover her new employer did not cover birth control, regardless of medical necessity.

Paying out of pocket for the contraceptive method that worked best for her, a nongeneric prescription, posed a significant hardship on the budget she had carefully planned with her husband. But Sandra especially objected to the bishops' interference in personal, private decisions about what her body needed in order to be able to perform at work every day.

Her story, unfortunately, is all too common. Although the majority of Catholic school teachers are women, their access to contraception is determined by the local bishop — who could not be more out of touch with a woman's health care needs. The bishops' intrusive rules also affect the female spouses of male teachers and all teachers' dependents, regardless of their religious beliefs. They, too, find access to contraception under the school plans to be anything but free.

But the bishops don't just require women workers to pay for their conscience-based decisions on their own dime. Sometimes they exclude people entirely.

Carla Hale was a teacher at a Catholic school in Ohio, where she served for 19 years. After her mother passed away, she included her same-sex partner's name in the obituary in the local newspaper. Someone complained anonymously to the school. Two weeks later, Carla was fired. Since then, other Catholic schools have fired workers for same-sex relationships, decisions that are now increasingly facing public outcry from Catholic parents and students who question why these dedicated instructors are not fit to serve.

Institutions — both secular and religious — cannot legitimately hide behind a supposed institutional "conscience" when they trample on the conscience rights of employees like Sandra and Carla. In both cases, their right to live according to their own beliefs was steamrolled by a bogus assertion of what religious freedom means.

The vast majority of Catholics side with Carla and Sandra. We overwhelmingly reject the bishops' teachings on contraception and their demand to use religion to discriminate.

What the bishops don't want you to see is that they are free to serve. The Archdiocese of New York has provided contraception for years — without complaint — to employees through the ArchCare Health Group. Catholic hospitals, schools and universities absolutely have the freedom to provide contraception coverage to employees without raising a fuss and without lodging a lawsuit. And yes, they can have humane employee policies without an annual two-week campaign that intimates that the services provided by the country's Catholic-run institutions are in any way linked to the sexual and reproductive choices made by their workers.

Any freedom that doesn't affirm the dignity of the many Sandras and Carlas who are the lifeblood of Catholic institutions everywhere is a poor freedom indeed.

Jon O'Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice. His email is cfc@catholisforchoice.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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