Amy Cotton, NCJW Senior Policy Manager
The Purim festival tells the story of Esther, a Jewish woman who stood up for justice. On March 23, the morning before the holiday began, my NCJW colleagues and I honored this powerful legacy by speaking out for reproductive health, rights, and justice as the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a critical case, Zubik v. Burwell. In the seven consolidated cases that make up Zubik, religiously affiliated non-profits are challenging an accommodation to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) guarantee of contraceptive coverage.
We began the day with a short breakfast briefing featuring partners from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Organization for Women, and NCJW, featuring yours truly! Each of these groups is a member of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice, a broad alliance co-convened by NCJW that works to ensure our nation’s public policies protect the religious liberty of all individuals, and oppose policies that would impose one religious viewpoint on everyone.
The room was abuzz with just how outrageous the claims in Zubik truly were, given the facts of the case that speakers laid out. Essentially, the religiously affiliated non-profits are seeking to use religion to discriminate — to force a woman to abide by someone else’s religious beliefs and deny her access to birth control coverage. (For background, see “What’s At Stake in Zubik v. Burwell?” below and NCJW’s fact sheet on key cases before the US Supreme Court this term).
We took a last sip of coffee, grabbed our NCJW signs, and marched one short block to join the diverse crowd that had gathered by the US Supreme Court steps. We chanted, “When birth control is under attack, what do you do? Stand up, fight back!” and “Pro-faith, pro-birth control!” We danced to a curated playlist of awesome female artists. And we got revved up by a powerful line-up of rally speakers, including students, clergy, and members of Congress. I was honored to be among them, representing NCJW’s unique faith voice for religious liberty and birth control access. As I grabbed the microphone, I drew courage from the thousands of NCJW advocates nationwide who, like powerful Jewish women throughout our history, speak out when justice demands it.
Watch the video of NCJW Senior Policy Manager, Amy Cotton, addressing the Zubik v. Burwell rally or read Amy’s remarks as prepared:
My name is Amy Cotton and I am Senior Policy Manager at the National Council of Jewish Women. I am a queer Jewish woman, I use birth control, and I believe in religious liberty!
Are there other people of faith here today? Are there people who believe in safeguarding religious liberty? Am I with people who support access to birth control? And what about folks who know that these three areas of faith, religious liberty, and birth control access are wholly compatible?
Millions of people of faith like me believe in access to affordable birth control. We know expanding affordable coverage is critical to advancing women’s equality, health equity, economic security and reproductive justice – closing gaps in access to contraception for folks struggling to make ends meet, women of color and young people.
And millions of people of faith like me cherish a bedrock principle of our democracy — religious liberty. Part of what religious liberty means is the right to make personal decisions guided by our own faith and values.
I carry with me the voices of thousands of NCJW members across the US. As Jewish women in America, we cherish the right to religious liberty — and believe no one should be forced to leave this right at the door when they arrive at work or school.
We respect the right of every person — be they an employer, school official, or politician — to hold their own religious beliefs and make decisions about their health, their bodies, and their families as they see fit. But we ask no less for ourselves.
As a person of faith, I affirm the right of women, workers, and students to access affordable birth control. I believe we all deserve the right to make personal decisions according to our own religious beliefs – but not to use religion to discriminate.
And as a person of faith, I believe we all deserve these basic rights, no matter where we work or go to school. And I know that the people, united, will never be defeated!
* * *
What’s at Stake in Zubik v. Burwell?
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all FDA-approved methods of birth control are guaranteed without copays in most employer and school-based insurance plans. Houses of worship are fully exempt from providing this benefit. Religiously affiliated non-profits, like schools, hospitals and social service agencies, are allowed an accommodation to opt out of providing this coverage if they hold religious objections. In order to opt out, they have to sign a form certifying their objection. The ACA then ensures the health plan or other third party provides coverage directly to women.
But in Zubik, the religiously affiliated non-profits are objecting to the opt out process itself. They claim the accommodation places a “substantial burden” on their religious belief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that completing the form involves them in providing birth control by triggering coverage. Contrary to this claim, the health reform law itself guarantees such coverage; the ACA ensures women can seamlessly access information and services directly from their insurance company if their employer or school refuses to provide it. As noted in NCJW’s press statement, this case is really about whether religious non-profits can use religion to discriminate, forcing workers and students to abide by someone else’s religious beliefs and to deny them access to birth control.
NCJW joined an amicus brief asserting that the accommodation does not erode the non-profits’ rights, and urging the justices to consider the harm that women would face if the accommodation is struck down. Zubik threatens the health of millions of individuals — workers employed by religiously-affiliated non-profits, students who attend faith-based schools, and their dependents. Contraceptive services support women’s health, allowing women to avoid unintended or mistimed pregnancy, and treat other conditions unique to women. Affordable coverage also ensures that a woman can obtain the birth control services that work best for her. For women struggling to make ends meet, women of color, young people, and others who already experience barriers to comprehensive health care and health education, this benefit is critical.
Through it all, individual women’s religious liberty also hangs in the balance. A woman’s right to make her own faith-informed decisions about her health will be eroded if she is denied coverage. With so much at risk, this case is yet another stark reminder of how much courts matter to every aspect of our lives.