What Makes a Strong Female Character?

•July 22, 2014 • 1 Comment

In talking about the intersection of feminism and literature, there are a few things that often come up: the need to recognize, promote, and have more female authors, the way books by female authors are perceived, and the need for strong female characters.  This last issue, the need for strong female characters, stretches into the realms of popular culture, into TV and movies.  We need characters that young women can relate to, characters who inspire them, characters who tell both boys and girls that girls are more than prizes to be won or damsels in distress.

I want to be clear: there are strong female characters circulating through literature and popular media-~-I’ve been highlighting some on the Radical Idea’s tumblr.  Some of them are very well done.  But there are two major approaches to having strong female characters, two major ways we have been taught to think of strong female characters, that ultimately have major flaws.

1) The near-perfect woman: Many times, in an attempt to make a female character be read as strong, brilliant, and tough, writers/producers will end up stripping her of some or all of her flaws.  Melissa Anelli, Harry Potter Alliance board member and author of Harry, a History says about movie Hermione that ” that sounds like you’re making a kick-ass, amazing character, and what you’re doing is dehumanizing her.”  She has a good point: no one could be movie Hermione.  She’s beautiful, the smartest girl in her class, brave, always the one to keep a cool head, always the logical one, always the sensitive one, almost perfectly loyal…the first movie stays true to her  character really well, as Hermione is still the annoying know-it-all we meet in the books when she first appears on screen…but over time, she becomes increasingly perfect, and in doing so, she becomes less human.

The reason I bring up Hermione as an example, however, is that book Hermione is a great example of the strong female character.  She is still smart and loyal and brave, but she’s stubborn, she genuinely never understands Quiddich, she goes on annoying tangents when she does things like start a movement to free house-elves, she’s self-conscious about her appearance, she’s reduced to tears several times, she’s jealous, she’s awkward…she’s real.  Certainly more so than movie Hermione.  Book Hermione lets us read and relate to a character who has enviable, admirable qualities, but also flaws and problems that many of us actually possess.  She’s not perfect, and that’s why she’s a better character.

2) The woman who transcends femininity: You likely know this character as well: she’s tough, she’s strong, she doesn’t get emotional except at funerals, and she’s probably a warrior or something similar.  This woman is strong, or at least she’s painted as strong, but she achieves this by eschewing femininity.  This woman doesn’t have time for things like flirting or parties or dresses, perhaps; her hair is always unkempt, but that’s fine; she thinks that anything “girly” is silly.  You know who this girl is: she’s Arya Stark from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, she’s Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.  We love these characters, but we see them as stronger than their more feminine counterparts specifically because they avoid or even openly dislike things we see as feminine/weak, such as big displays of emotion, or concern about appearance.

I’m not saying it’s bad to write characters who are, for lack of a better word, tomboyish.  Arya Stark and Katniss Everdeen are good characters, and there are girls who want to distance themselves from traditional femininity.  The important thing in writing these kinds of characters is to a) make them well-rounded and b) not make femininity seem inherently pathetic.  The problem with Arya Stark, which Katniss doesn’t have, is that she sees her sister’s femininity as making her weak, and because Sansa Stark is one of the most feminine, and often most victimized, women on the show, viewers are likely to see her as pathetic.  I digress, though: the point is that if one wants to write a character like that, then one needs to make them more than just a stern expression and a sword.  What drives this character?  Is it revenge?  Is it a need to be able to protect themselves?  Is it love of their family?  What do they like?  What are they afraid of?  Even the strongest people still have fears and weaknesses-~-these characters need them too, in order to be real.

But these archetypes aside, we need more diverse strong female characters, not just more well-rounded, better-balanced versions of the kinds we already have.  As a writer, and as a reader, I want women who come from different backgrounds, women who have different motivations and goals.  I want women who are driven by love-~-like Gwen Stacy (from “Spider-man”), and Meg (from Disney’s “Hercules”).  I want women who have great careers but desperately want families, like Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy).  I want women who stand up for themselves and for others, who won’t let themselves be stepped on, like Daenerys Stormborn (Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Tris Prior (Divergent)  and Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars).  I want smart women like Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), self-assured women like Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Jessica Pearson (Suits), women who refuse to compromise their goals like Christina Yang (Grey’s Anatomy) and women who are still figuring out who they are, like Mia Thermopolis (The Princess Diaries).  I want women who struggle with disabilities, like Daphne Vasquez (Switched at Birth), women who have to learn to accept themselves like Jane Bingum (Drop Dead Diva) and women who don’t care what anyone thinks of them, like Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas).  I want sassy women, fierce women, shy women, and sweet women.  I want to be able to think of more strong fictional women of color than this post mentions (and more queer and trans women, and roles filled by queer and trans women), and I want them in major, iconic  roles on TV and in movies.  (I did find great lists of women of color in movies, but while some-~-like Halle Berry’s portrayal of Storm in the X-men films-~-might readily come to mind, others didn’t stand out as much.  We need more.)

It’s not just about wanting these women–~we need representations like these in fiction-~-both on the page, and on the screen.  We need female characters who adequately represent how diverse women truly are, characters who remind young women that they can be whoever they want, and that being who they already are is enough.  Being strong needs to be attainable for women-~-not something they can see but never be, not something they could only achieve by giving up who they really are, not something that seems distant and foreign, but something that is really possible, something that comes from trying your best, going for your goals, being willing to take chances, using your strengths, and most of all, realizing that you are valuable, exactly as you are.

Why You Need to Care About the Midterms

•July 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Right now, the Senate is moving to vote on a bill that, in theory, could help protect women from the impacts of the Hobby Lobby decision.

Let me explain: the Hobby Lobby ruling wasn’t based primarily on the Constitution, but on another law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Because RFRA was created by Congress, it can be changed by Congress, and the Senate Democrats would like to do just that: amend RFRA so that it can’t be used by corporations, thereby protecting not only women’s reproductive choices, but the rights of LGBT employees who are already being discriminated against by companies on the grounds of religious belief.

The reality is that Senate Democrats are probably not going to win this vote-~-even if they succeed in the Senate, it likely won’t make it through the Republican-controlled House.  You might be wondering, then, why they’re even bothering to move on this bill at all, and the answer is this: voting on this bill means that every single Senator and Representative will have a vote, on record, about women’s health and its politicization.

A major concern of the Democratic Party, and its supporters, has been that of voter turnout.  Across demographics and party lines, Americans turn out to vote in higher numbers during presidential elections than any other year-~-and this, it appears, is especially true for Democratic voters.  Some believe that when there is higher turnout, demographics naturally favor the Democrats, but that’s not necessarily true.  The reality is that turnout matters only if people are ready to demand something from their government: the passage of a policy that is voted on directly, the continuation of a representative they like, or the replacement of an official they don’t like.

Generally speaking, midterm electorates are older and often whiter.  A large portion of the Democratic electorate is comprised of minorities, lower-income individuals, and young people, who often stay home without the hype of a presidential election to draw them to the polls.  It’s easier to care when there are televised primaries and debates, and an election is on the news all the time…but this just isn’t true during the midterms.  There are too many races to follow for the mainstream media to follow it all, and as a result, fewer people show up.

There are only a few possible solutions.  Parties can use Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns including canvassing, Rock the Vote events, etc.  They can spend money on ad buys to generate conversations or at least force people to realize that an election is actually happening.  Or they can use the media, by leveraging a major issue that their constituents care a lot about…and that appears to be exactly what the Democrats are doing with this new bill in the Senate.

If you’re reading this, I don’t personally care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.  What I am going to say is still the same.  This November, you need to vote.  Every single member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election on Novemeber 4th.  Whichever issues matter to you, whatever it is that worries you, find a candidate who will protect your interests and vote for them.  Talk to your family and friends about why you’re voting and why it matters to vote.  And it does matter.  I know that elections have become disheartening affairs.  I know that corporations have too much influence, with lobbying and donations and money being speech.  But there’s one thing that you can do that Walmart can’t, and that’s go to the polls and actually vote for the person you want to represent you.

We need change in this country, desperately.  We need a Congress that will actually govern, a Congress that will pass laws needed to make this country run, attend to its citizens’ welfare, and protect the people living here.  We need a Congress that will actually solve problems, instead of trying to impeach the president for trying to do so in their stead.  We need representatives who will acknowledge that rape is a real problem and try to address survivors’ needs, who will uphold a separation of Church and State, who will be willing to address climate change, who will actually attempt to do their jobs instead of causing the government to shut down because they can’t get their way.  Consider this:

In the two years that the democrats had the White House, the House, and the Senate, we got Wall Street reform, student loan reform, credit card reform, healthcare reform obviously, the fair pay act, expanding of the GI bill, they re-authorized the children’s health insurance program, expanded national service programs, fixed the sentencing disparity for crack versus powdered cocaine. We got the 9/11 first responders bill, we got the hate crimes act, they ratified the Start treaty between us and Russia on nuclear weapons, they repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they did cash for clunkers, they did the stimulus which included the largest middle-class tax cuts ever. That was all done by the Congress that was elected at the same time as President Obama in 2008. They were elected in November 2008, sworn in January 2009 and over the next 2 years they got all of those things done. Then, the republicans did really well in the midterms, and republicans took control of the House for the first time in years and, John Boehner became Speaker. And since then, there has not been a single significant piece of legislation enacted into law.
—  Rachel Maddow, 9/30/13
I know that not everyone who reads this blog is a Democrat, or agrees with the Democrats.  I know that the Democrats are not perfect, that their policies often fall short of what even their supporters want, that this country has competing ideas and fiscal concerns.  But if you care about where things are going, you have to vote this November.  And if you care about women’s rights, I’d advise that you pay attention in the coming weeks…and vote for the people who are voting to look out for you.

Don’t Call Me Crazy: 5 Letters and the Marks They Leave

•July 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

TW: Abuse

“I’m sorry you have to work with crazy”.

A direct quote, from an ex-boyfriend who hated me to my debate partner.  He could have chosen any adjective in the world to describe me.  He picked crazy.

Was I crazy?  No.  Was it strategic to call me that?  Of course.  Because in a society that allegedly values rationality-~-an attribute that we conflate with masculinity only because we teach boys to detach themselves from their feelings such that many lack full emotional literacy in their grown lives-~-there’s nothing worse than being considered irrational, nonsensical, not worth listening to.  We use the word crazy all the time: as a teammate pointed out, calling someone crazy is the easiest way to delegitimize them.   And that, of course, is exactly the problem.  (Half the problem, the other half being that the use of the word “crazy” stigmatizes people with actual mental illnesses, which is a widespread issue.)

I wrote about the use of the word crazy and its role in gaslighting a couple of years ago, and mentioned it in a post about the language of delegitimization, but a recent op-ed made me want to revisit the subject.

The author of the op-ed, Harris O’Malley, points out that “‘Crazy’ is one of the five deadly words guys use to shame women into compliance. The others: Fat. Ugly. Slutty. Bitchy. They sum up the supposedly worst things a woman can be.”  I think he phrases it accurately, that men (and sometimes women, too) shame women into compliance by attacking them with the labels they/we are taught to fear the most.  Fat and ugly we fear because we are told that our value as people is tied into our attractiveness, to how men see us.  Slutty we fear (though perhaps less and less so?  Only time will really tell) because female sexuality is a difficult thing to navigate, with social consequences for failure.  Bitchy we fear because we’re taught that we should be soft, that being bitchy is being mean, that it’s unbecoming, that people won’t like us.

But crazy is the one that’s used the most often and again, I think O’Malley hits the nail on the head when he writes that “As soon as the “crazy” card is in play, women are put on the defensive. It derails the discussion from what she’s saying to how she’s saying it. We insist that someone can’t be emotional and rational at the same time, so she has to prove that she’s not being irrational. Anything she says to the contrary can just be used as evidence against her.”

He’s right.  “Crazy” forces women to defend the fact that what they’re saying is, in fact, reasonable.  The fact that we refuse to accept that someone can be upset, and for good reason, or angry, and for good reason, is immensely problematic.  Of course there are good reasons to be upset, and they’re worth discussing.  But as soon as people are forced to defend their rationality, the point becomes almost moot.  The person is already not listening, not dealing with the issue, acting like its absurd, acting like the person is absurd.

O’Malley points out that this is, as previously mentioned, a form of gaslighting, a way to make people second-guess their emotions and come to rely on another person as an emotional barometer.  He rightly brings up the fact that this is, in fact, a common tactic used by abusers, and it’s this point, more than anything, that makes me want to discuss this issue further.  Emotional abuse is, as previously mentioned, one of the harder forms of abuse to spot, because it doesn’t leave visible marks.  It does, however, leave real emotional damage, and the use of gaslighting-~-the use of words like crazy-~-is a part of it.

One of the most significant issues, in this writer’s mind, with the way that “crazy” is used to delegitimize women’s emotions, is this: it doesn’t only make the woman question the validity of her own experiences, it makes others question their validity as well.  When an abusive individual uses this kind of emotional manipulation, the abused person may have trouble recognizing that it is not their fault, that their partner is at fault, or that they are being hurt.  When the abusive person also writes off any fights, or anything else that friends might hear about, as the abused person being “crazy”, they allow-~-really, invite-~-their social group to dismiss the abused person’s experiences as well.  And because people are all too willing to accept “crazy” as a reason, there’s a real chance of this working…which leaves the abused person in a position where they struggle to trust their own assessment of the situation, and others have ceased to take it seriously.  It allows the perpetuation of abuse in situations where it might otherwise have been disrupted.

I certainly wouldn’t say I’m crazy.  I’d say that during the time of my breakup/abuse, I was emotional.  I was confused.  I’d say that I had trouble coping, because I was having trouble recognizing what was really going on with me.  That’s the end result of gaslighting, where the person can no longer tell whether or not their understanding is legitimate, and tries to get a sense of whether they are right by going off of the behavior of others.  At the end of the day, I had to waste time digging through different sides of the story to figure out the truth, and had to waste time defending my ultimate understanding and feelings about the situation as reasonable, because that’s the power of the word “crazy”.  And that’s exactly why we need to stop using it.

If you are concerned about your safety, or think you might be in an abusive relationship, you can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at http://www.thehotline.org/ or  1-800-799-7233 .  Remember, abuse is never the survivor’s fault.

Let’s Talk About AIDS

•July 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Recently, a 16-year-old with a popular Vine account named Nash Grier made an inflammatory statement claiming that AIDS was a “fag” thing*.  He may only be 16, but he has over 8 million followers, and is parroting an anti-gay message that has, in the past, been used to vilify the LGBT community.  The original belief was that only gay persons were at risk for HIV/AIDS, and the myth accompanying this was that the gay community “deserved” this, as “punishment” for their behavior.  Even today, it can be difficult to impress upon heterosexual persons that they are equally, if not more, at risk for HIV, when myths like this continue to circulate in popular culture.  In fact, the Vine video in question first showed a public service announcement that was reminding people that getting tested for HIV is not just a “gay thing”, and that everyone should get tested.

So, let’s talk about AIDS.  No matter your gender, no matter your race, no matter your age, no matter your sexual orientation, if you are sexually active or use intravenous drugs, you may be at risk for HIV/AIDS.  I know it’s easy to More than 1 million people are living with AIDS in the United States today, and 1 in 6 don’t know they’re infected.  Incidence (the number of new infections per year) and prevalence (the proportion of a population impacted by HIV/AIDS) vary by geographic location and demographic group, but make no mistake: people in every are and every group are impacted by this disease.

Why the LGBTQ community then?  The reality is that, specifically, men who have sex with men (MSM) are among the most at-risk for HIV infection, particularly young, African-American MSM (in the United States, at least).  The reason for this, however, is purely biological: anal sex carries with it greater risk of transmitting infections as a result of how membranes become exposed and the relative roughness/rubbing involved in anal sex.  As a result, individuals who engage primarily in anal sex are more likely to transmit infections, including HIV.  But that doesn’t mean that vaginal intercourse doesn’t also carry with it a risk of HIV transmission: it does.

I’ll also briefly get into the issue of race as well.  African-Americans are the most impacted demographic group in the United States with regards to HIV/AIDS.  This is in part because of the relative lack of services initially available in African-American communities, and in part because of the link between HIV risk and incarceration, which also disproportionately impacts African-Americans.  Within prison communities, practices like unprotected sex and needle-sharing among illicit drug users are commonplace, and very few states require/provide for HIV testing upon exiting the system.  This means that many individuals who contract HIV while in prison do not realize they are HIV positive when they re-enter their communities.

At the same time, partners of incarcerated persons (often women) are placed at risk not only when their partners return, but while they are away; research indicates that women who believe they need to be involved with a man for sociocultural reasons are placed at risk when the male-to-female ratio in their communities becomes skewed (for example, by wide-scale incarceration), in part because they lose their bargaining power over things like safe sex.  I mention it here because it’s interesting, but also because these dynamics have disproportionately placed African-American women at risk.  While women represent 20% of HIV positive persons in the United States, African-American women make up the largest portion of that demographic.

If you’re reading this and thinking this means it might be a “gay thing” or a “Black thing”, I want to be reiterate what I said earlier: those groups are disproportionately impacted because of the ways in which the virus spreads, but every demographic group is vulnerable.  So no matter how you identify, no matter the color of your skin, no matter what social network you think you’re plugged into…get yourself tested.  I know it seems scary, but it’s NOT just a “gay thing”, it’s NOT just a “Black thing”, it’s a health thing, and getting tested could help you prevent the virus from transmitting further, delay symptoms by years, and let you live a healthier life.  When we let homophobia/heterosexism cloud our understandings of real medical processes, when we let racial conceptions of us and them distort our views of situations, we put ourselves, and the people we love at risk.  Check your assumptions, and then check your area for free/low-cost HIV clinics.  The more you know, the more control you get.


*NOTE: the author of this blog does not approve of the use of slurs such as this one

Dress Codes and Codified Sexism: What Are We Really Teaching Students?

•July 8, 2014 • 3 Comments

There have been numerous articles over the last few months about the problems surrounding fashion policing and school dress codes, and women in particular have been up in arms over the issue.  As Christian Science Monitor notes, boys are not exactly exempt from these issues, and it places parents in a sticky situation…but these dress codes are definitely based on gendered ideas of acceptability, and they tell us a lot about what we are actually, and often inadvertently, teaching our students.

Many dress codes feature stipulations such as “pants and shirt must meet”, skirts and shorts must come below the fingertips, tank top straps must be at least two fingers wide, and flip-flops are banned.  While some of these-~-the flip-flop ban, for example-~-make sense for safety reasons, the reality is that other rules are designed to police the appearances of students.  I don’t deny that there probably should be limits to what students can and cannot wear to school, but those rules need to be far more equitable than they currently are, and they should be based on making students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom, not shaming students for their sexuality.

First of all, I think dress codes need to recognize the reality of clothing markets in the countries in which they are made.  The reality is that girls’ clothing-~-that is, clothing designed for young women, and teenage girls-~-often features things like short shorts and skirts, and tank tops with skinny straps.  Parents can only buy their children what is sold in stores (as my own mother has reminded me throughout my life), which means that parents are then placed in the position of choosing between obeying the school dress code or allowing their students to be comfortable when it grows hot out.  Keep in mind, most public schools (I can’t speak to private schools here) are not air conditioned, which can make it difficult to keep cool.  We need a dress code that allows students to dress comfortably and reasonably given the climate, and that may mean letting students wear shorts that, say, are long enough to cover their whole pockets (which leaves a far wider selection of clothes), without saying they need to be longer than someone’s fingers.  Or, to be honest, we could just say that shorts are fine, instead of arbitrarily sexualizing thighs.  Personally, I’m for just not sexualizing young women’s body parts.

Second of all, many of these restrictions, and their enforcement, disproportionately impact girls.  Recognize that most boys’ shorts are long, and most of their tank tops are not spaghetti straps.  Most of their shirts are long too…in fact, the issue at play with young men is often that they want their pants to be saggy, a story for a different day I think.  But young men are not likely to be sent home, or told they need to change, because their t-shirt is just a little too short or their tank top doesn’t meet the requirements.  

Third, schools just aren’t doing enough to actually achieve what dress codes should: ensuring that students feel safe.  My freshman year of high school, one of the drum majors for the marching band (which I was in, it was part of band class) wore a shirt that said “LAUGH so I can see them bounce”.  And to be honest, I felt kind of uncomfortable: he was a bigger, older guy, with authority over me in the context of that activity, and that shirt made me feel unsettled.  I’m fine with schools saying that clothing can’t contain sexually explicit messages, because they can make students feel uncomfortable or even unsafe.  But the school did nothing about that boy and his t-shirt, nor did they ever do anything about shirts saying things like “Save Water, Shower Together” with a stick figure image of a guy and a girl under a shower head, or “You know you want it”.  

When schools create these dress codes, they claim it is because other students “can’t concentrate” when girls wear short skirts or tank tops to class.  But other feminists, and many students, have already articulated the things I feel on this matter: we need to stop teaching men, and especially boys, that it is okay to sexualize girls’ bodies.  We need to stop teaching our students that boys’ “focus” is more important than girls’ safety, which is what we say when we create these uneven dress codes.  And we need to stop telling girls that how they look, and how boys feel about it, is more important than their education, which is what we say when we pull girls out of class or send them home to change.  Students learn a lot more than just algebra and history in high school: they learn how to navigate social roles and interact with peers in different contexts.  Are these really the lessons about social expectations that we want young people to internalize?  Do we really want to keep reproducing a culture that says that women need to modify their appearance to appease or protect themselves from men?  Or do we want to change the story, and tell men that they need to learn to behave around women, need to stop sexualizing random body parts on women, need to respect their female colleagues?  

I know which world I’d rather live in, don’t you?

What Next? Reflecting on Hobby Lobby and the Massachusetts Buffer Zone Case

•July 1, 2014 • 1 Comment

As promised, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decided yesterday in the case brought forward by Hobby Lobby-~-and, much to the dismay of reproductive justice advocates, they ruled in favor of the craft store owners.  And in doing so, they effectively ruled against people who can potentially get pregnant.

I’ve already shared my thoughts and concerns on this in my last post, but to be clear, I’m not alone in my line of thinking.  In fact, some of the potential slippery-slope consequences I mentioned also appeared in Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent, in which she writes

Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

Bader Ginsberg goes further, saying that she fears the court has “walked into a minefield”, setting the stage for any number of legal challenges to this ruling.

I actually hope that she is right-~-not because I want to see people denied coverage for important medical procedures, but because eventually one of those legal challenges is likely to end up in front of the Supreme Court again, and hopefully they will be forced to reverse their positions.  While birth control seems like a voluntary, not-so-important facet of healthcare (even though for many, it is so much more than that), I doubt the same could be said for anesthesia.  And, as Bader Ginsberg also points out, the Court can hardly favor one religious claim over another, because this would come into direct conflict with the Establishment Clause in the first amendment.  We shall have to wait and see.  In the meantime, I can only hope that there will be some adequate safety net created for employees who need financial help accessing birth control. If you’re thinking that this isn’t a “real” problem, note that 34% of women voters report that they have at some point needed help paying for birth control, a number which jumps to 55% among young women.

This comes on the heels of another SCOTUS decision impacting reproductive rights, namely the Massachusetts Buffer Zone case.  The Court ruled unanimously that Massachusetts went too far, because their buffer zones included public sidewalks.  That may seem reasonable at first glance, but recognize that much of the harassment of both employees and patients occurs in public spaces, and most entrances are on public sidewalks.  Doctors, nurses, and patients alike receive verbal abuse and death threats when they enter clinics, and the safety of these individuals ought to be a concern when we consider issues like buffer zones in current debates.

It’s obvious that reproductive rights activists are going to continue to come up against first amendment claims-~-and that, to be honest, is not unreasonable.  We need to have these debates and discussions in our society as we work to reconcile what are clearly important competing rights claims.  But we need to figure out how to reconcile these claims in a way that doesn’t place individuals’ comfort as paramount to other individuals’ health-~-and while you’ll never hear me tell you that religion is meaningless, and we should disrespect it, the reality is that it should never be forced upon others.  Free exercise means that you shouldn’t have to take birth control if you believe it’s problematic, but you shouldn’t be able to stop me from doing so.  It means that we shouldn’t be able to stop you from going to church, sending your children to Sunday school, even teaching them your beliefs about homosexuality…but it doesn’t mean you should be able to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.  We ultimately need a clearer understanding of what freedom of religion means in this country, if we are going to reconcile religious claims with those other rights…because your ability to practice shouldn’t be an infringement on my own ability to operate as a person in our society.


SCOTUS To Rule On Hobby Lobby Soon

•June 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Sometime in the next few days-~-before June 30-~-the Supreme Court is set to rule on Sebelius v Hobby Lobby.  The ruling will have significant implications, given that its subject matter concerns whether or not corporations should be entitled to religious freedoms and religious exceptions.

Those who have followed the ongoing controversies over the birth control mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will remember that there was also a recent case, Little Sisters of the Poor v Sebelius, in which a religiously-affiliated organization already eligible for exception under the mandate sued with regards to the application for exemption.  This case has even more significant implications than the former: currently, private corporations such as Hobby Lobby, which are not religiously affiliated, are not entitled to any exceptions regarding their coverage of contraception.  The owners, who identify as Evangelical Christians, are contesting this, claiming that they have a problem with 4 kinds of contraception included in the mandate because they believe that said forms (2 kinds of morning-after pill and 2 kinds of IUDs) terminate life. Never mind that this is not supported by any current science, this is the grounds for their contesting the mandate.

In my previous coverage of this case, I discussed a couple of reasons why I believe that, constitutionally, the Supreme Court should rule against Hobby Lobby.  I’ll give a brief recap here: first, corporate personhood is meant to legally separate corporations from their owners with regards to rights and responsibilities, and ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby would mean abandoning this concept of corporate personhood, which would have negative legal implications.  Second, even if one wanted to argue that this was a rights violation, I argue that the government can claim a compelling state interest to ensure access to birth control and that the mandate, with its exception for religious institutions, likely constitutes the least restrictive means to do so.  Lastly, I discussed this issue in terms of right to privacy: if a company can’t control what an individual spends their money on, they shouldn’t be able to control what their health insurance covers, as either form of interference would constitute a privacy violation.

Writing on the forthcoming decision, the National Constitution Center reporters have noted that during arguments, it seemed likely that Chief Justice John Roberts may seek a compromise, creating a divide between closely held companies (like Hobby Lobby) and publicly held companies.  It also seems likely that Kennedy’s vote could have a strong (if not decisive) impact on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

There are two major issues at play in this case.  The first is whether or not corporations should have free exercise rights, and legal scholars following the case seem to believe that these rights may be upheld for closely held corporations.  The Third Circuit Court has already rejected this argument in the sister case to Hobby Lobby’s, Sebelius vs Costenoga Wood.

The second issue is whether or not corporations have the right to force religious beliefs on their employees, something that many have expressed concern about if Hobby Lobby were to win their case.  In a recent teleconference, Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he pointed out that if Hobby Lobby were to win this decision, it would set a precedent that would allow for companies run by other religiously-affiliated persons to deny coverage of other kinds of healthcare, such as psychiatry, or surgery, which are opposed by Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, respectively.  Forbes  reported that Catholics for Choice associate Meghan Smith also went on record pointing out that this could allow companies to, for example, fire individuals for being pregnant but unmarried, which is contentious in certain religions.  These practices would obviously come into conflict with other laws and civil rights protections, creating grounds for other legal suits, but the reality is that a Hobby Lobby/Costenoga Wood victory this week could have harmful implications for the protection of employees-~-and that’s a slippery slope we definitely don’t want to slide down.

At a time when there are groups complaining that they are being persecuted against because they are not being legally allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, it seems likely that we would have further civil rights problems on our hands if the Courts were to decide that corporations have the right to religious freedom-~-at the very least, it seems likely we would see another wave of cases as individuals had to fight for their rights as employees.  This is particularly problematic given that most states do not have employment non-discrimination statutes in place for sexuality or gender identity, which means that we would almost certainly see new cases of discrimination on religious grounds, with no means for recourse.  The reality is that employees-~-especially female employees, who are more likely to engage in contentious behaviors or at least to have them held against them (since cis-men do not need to use contraception, get abortions, or carry babies out of wedlock)-~-would be put at risk for discrimination unless the ruling is very narrowly tailored.

We will have to wait and see.  Fingers crossed for a positive outcome for advocates of contraception-~-the birth control mandate has the potential to offer life-changing medical options to individuals, but only if it remains intact.


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