Friday, July 4, 2014

Freedom From Expression in Higher Education

This one isn't about the Middle Ages, but rather about current trends in higher education:

Remember in elementary school when you'd divide up teams for Jeopardy in social sutdies or for flag football in physical education? And at some point, somebody would invariably shout: "Let's do boys versus girls!"  Winning gender got bragging rights and sometimes Reece's cups or pencil erasers shaped like little animals as a prize. Those are fair stakes for boys-versus-girls competitions. 

This week the Supreme Court divided up as the boys' team and the girls' team. At stake were the credibility of the institution and women's access to health care. The boys' team won.

The Supreme Court ruled that private corporations with sincere religious beliefs (!) against contraception can sign a waiver that allows them not to pay for insurance policies that cover contraception; the federal government will provide that coverage for employees. Only a few days later, in a 6-3 decision, boys-versus-girls, it gave a special exception Wheaton College, which claimed that it was against its institutional religious beliefs to even sign the waiver because then it would be complicit in its female employees getting birth control. 

In essence the court has allowed Wheaton college to trap its female employees in a no-man's land, with their health care not covered by an employer that does not pay for contraception and not covered by a federal government whose participation in the matter has not been triggered by a declaration of faith. 

I think that the real problem with the Wheaton College decision is that the college is requesting special treatment not because of its religious beliefs but rather because it refuses to stand up and be counted for them. The institution is not asserting that because it is a Christian college it will not pay for women's coverage of contraception. It is asking for a right not to cover women's health care without stating a reason why.

It's so twisted around that it's almost hard to define the problem. The college wants to exercise its freedom of religion without exercising freedom of religion. It wants to say that it can't say that it can't do something because of its faith.  It does not want freedom of religious expression. It wants freedom from religious expression while still reaping the benefits of the freedom to exercise religion and act upon religious belief. It does not want freedom of religion. It wants freedom of religion and freedom from the rest of the world continuing to function around the wide berth carved out for that freedom.

Wheaton College is no longer asserting its right to the free exercise of its religion. Rather, it is asserting a right ripped unsensibly from another context: a right to remain silent. It is the paradoxial reductio ad absurdum of Christian colleges that do not believe that  their academic missions include the freedom of expression and the freedom to question and to investigate and research and form conclusions. It has gone so far that they no longer believe in the expression of their own beliefs. Wheaton College's religious expression is not the problem. Its assertion of its right to remain silent, and to wield its religious beliefs over women's lives sheltered by that cloak of silence that is the problem.

And to borrow a slogan from another campaign and another period in the history of sexual health: silence kills.

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