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It’s Personal: Reproductive Justice and Religious Liberty with Rev. Angela Herrera

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Angela Herrera

Rev. Angela Herrera is the associate minister of the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Angela is a longtime organizer and activist on reproductive justice and maternal health issues. She is also a member of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress. Most recently, Angela worked with a coalition to defeat the proposed 20-week ban on abortion in Albuquerque. There, her Spanish-language statement of faith-based, pro-choice advocacy appeared on Univision. She has worked as a birth doula and completed a chaplaincy internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, while earning her master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Sally Steenland: This past Sunday you preached a sermon on religious liberty, and you did that in anticipation of a Supreme Court argument about granting religious liberty to corporations, based on a lawsuit by an arts-and-crafts store called Hobby Lobby and another corporation called Conestoga Wood [Specialties], whose owners are refusing to include contraceptive coverage in the health plans for their employees under the Affordable Care Act. Why did you preach that sermon?

Angela Herrera: I preached the sermon because I wanted my congregation to know that although the media has been pitching this case as though it were a showdown between religious liberty and women’s health, in reality, it’s not about those things at all. In fact, those two things go hand in hand.

I wanted my congregation to know that what this case is really about is whether the government will give preference to the religious liberty of a corporation over the religious liberty of that corporation’s employees. In other words, whether they will allow the CEOs and owners of companies to dictate the level of access that their employees have to contraception based on the CEO or owner’s religious claims.

I’m worried about that. I’m worried also because that would affect not only the employees but also female partners and adolescent daughters of employees too. I especially wanted my congregation to know that there are real-life consequences if the court decides in favor of Hobby Lobby, and that would actually be a blow to religious liberty. As a faith leader, I care a lot about religious liberty, and I want to make sure that everyone has it, not just people in power or just a few people.

SS: I heard somebody say last week—they were talking about this case—and they said that if the government rules in favor of Hobby Lobby that religious liberty could become a luxury item for employers and not for employees. It seems that’s what you are saying, that everybody gets religious liberty, not just employers. 

AH: That’s right. I care a lot about this, and religious liberty is under threat right now. But it’s not under threat by the Affordable Care Act; it’s under threat by corporations like Hobby Lobby that want to impose conservative religious restrictions on tens of thousands of other people.

SS: One of the things you did in your sermon was connect this Supreme Court case on contraceptive coverage to a recent veto of an anti-discrimination bill in Arizona by Gov. Jan Brewer. I think in a lot of people’s minds those two aren’t connected. But in your mind, they are, and I would say in my mind they are—that they are virtually about the same issue. Why did you bring the two together?

AH: Well, it is really interesting because in both cases, what we have, essentially, are business owners claiming that their business should have religious liberty, which is a pretty radical thing to claim. I asked my congregation: Who here would identify themselves as a corporation? And of course, no hands went up because corporations don’t go to church, and they are not religious, nonprofit organizations like a church or a religious charity [are].

Therefore, they are not entitled to religious liberty. In both cases if we give religious liberty to a business or a corporation, that will have an impact on a lot of people that depend on the business or corporation. So in both cases, it is favoring a nonexistent religious liberty of a corporation or business over the very real religious liberty of the people [who] depend on it.

SS: I’ve been talking to some clergy and some faith leaders, and you yourself are a clergyperson. One of the things they’ve said to me is that granting religious liberty to corporations is actually bad for religion. Churches, houses of worship, and religious institutions have a rich history in our country of very valuable work in social justice work and merciful work. If you take those special rights and privileges that have historically been reserved for this unique group of religious institutions and then you just apply it to all businesses, then that is almost debasing religion and the meaningful role that is has in our country.

AH: I agree. Yes, we should not conflate religious nonprofits with corporate, for-profit enterprises.

SS: One of the things you said in your sermon that I like a lot was that the voices of women in this case around contraceptive coverage have been pretty silent. We haven’t really heard women’s stories. And then, you told a story. Do you want to tell that story?

AH: Sure! I’d be glad to tell that story. It is funny because it is such a personal story; it is not a story I would usually tell from the pulpit at all. But it is so relevant to this case, and it is a story people haven’t heard because women’s voices have been strangely absent from the public conversation.

The story took place in 1999, back when I was a part-time student and the mother of a 3-year-old and a new infant. There was a moment when my husband and I experienced a birth control failure. I won’t go into too much detail except to say that we immediately knew that we were in trouble. So I called the midwife who had delivered my son just a few months earlier, and she called in a prescription for me.

This was not a prescription for the abortion pill; it was a prescription for a dose of hormones to prevent pregnancy from occurring at all. So first thing the next morning, I got the kids up, fed, dressed, buckled into the car, and I booked it down to the pharmacy right when they opened. Because I know that the sooner you take the pills, the more effective they are.

But when I got there, the pharmacist—who was a big, stern-looking guy in his 50s—informed me that he would not fill it because he thought it was immoral. I had an adrenalin surge—I couldn’t believe he was saying that. I couldn’t believe it could be possible that he could have the right to cause a delay that could get me pregnant. I was furious.

I instructed him to transfer it to the next closest pharmacy because I just wanted to get it taken care of. So I did go to the next one; it was four miles down the road. Luckily, I had a car. Luckily, I had healthy kids I could take across town. Luckily, I did not have a job I had to hurry to. Luckily, the next pharmacist did fill it. If any of those things had gone wrong, I could have had my third baby in four years.

I told my congregation: If that had happened, then what? Would I have been able to continue on with my studies, which led me to a scholarship at a university, which led me to a scholarship and admission to graduate school at Harvard, which led me to be their minister? Would I have even been standing up there that morning? You know, I could not really say with certainty that I would, and it was all because of a pharmacist disagreeing with my midwife’s prescription and asserting his religious liberty in a way that just barged right into the most private part of my life.

SS: You’re right, it was essential health care for you, but it was also your moral discernment and religious liberty with your husband [to determine] what was right for the flourishing for your family. You made a very responsible decision, and somebody tried to thwart that. 

AH: Absolutely. One of the things that’s happening here is the religious liberty of people who believe in restricting options is trying to dominate people whose religion allows for many options—who want to be the authors of their own lives, and who deserve to be.

SS: Sometimes people spend a lot of time talking about the free exercise of religion. I have the right to exercise my own religion, and that’s true. There are many cases where doing so doesn’t impose a burden on a third party. If you want to wear a headscarf to work or a yarmulke or a whole variety of religious practices, that’s fine and does not impose a burden on a third party, but what you are talking about does. The pharmacist’s claim of religious liberty imposed real harm and a burden on you. So that’s where it’s not an absolute because then you’re being forced to follow his religious beliefs that are not your own.

AH: That’s right, there are two sides of religious liberty. On the one hand, it’s the freedom to practice your religion. And on the other hand, it’s the freedom to [not] have it imposed on you from the government or other people, and that is where the line has to be drawn. There’s a saying that one person’s religious liberty has to end at the tip of another person’s nose. That’s what did not happen that day—his religious liberty did not end at the tip of my nose. It barged right into my life.

SS: It punched you in the nose! Well, thank you for preaching that sermon and for sharing your story because it’s very important to hear those voices. I want to go back in time to last year and the 20-week abortion ban that was proposed in Albuquerque. It was considered by many that it was going to pass.

There was a coalition called Respect Albuquerque Women that you were a part of, and you defeated it. You as a faith leader were part of that coalition. Can you talk about the role of faith voices in that coalition? And for other groups—because we know there are 20-week bans being proposed in other states—was there anything you learned that’s worth sharing with other groups that might be undergoing a similar effort?

AH: It was absolutely crucial for people of faith to speak up. And not just me, but lots of other faith leaders too. It brings balance to the conversation because too often the faith perspective on issues of abortion is really dominated by the anti-choice side. In reality, millions of people of faith, including ministers and rabbis and priests, understand very well that the decision to end a pregnancy is an intensely personal one. It has to be between a woman and her doctor, in consultation with her family and her faith.

When that referendum came to Albuquerque, my colleague at First Unitarian and I joined other faith leaders in town in getting out in front of the issue. Some of the things we did to help the effort were hosting a press conference here at our church, going to rallies and workshops, speaking out from the pulpit and on social media, and we lent our church campus as a base camp for the coalition that was working to defeat the referendum. I think that the existence of that coalition is one of the most important takeaways or lessons from the referendum in Albuquerque. What we had was a network of relationships between pro-choice, pro-woman, [and] pro-family organizations that preceded the referendum, so people already had relationships with each other. When the referendum came, we were able to mobilize very quickly and speak with one big, organized voice. You saw banners that said “Respect Albuquerque Women” all over town. And it was such a positive message, it was so clear that there were a lot of people behind it. I think it really helped the effort a lot.

SS: So, having relationships that exist prior to an effort is an important thing. You know each other, you can mobilize, you can hit the ground running, and you’re not building it as you’re flying it. I know you did some press around the issue as well. Can you just talk a bit about the stories you were trying to get out? What’s important about that messaging in terms of what the press coverage is, especially around the 20-week ban, which our opponents see as a winning issue because they talk about fetal pain, and they see it as having more public support than some of the other restrictive laws and policies? How did you push back against that, and how did you be proactive?

AH: It was important for people to start thinking about this not just as an abstract concept because it is a very hard thing to think about—abortions, the later term they are. I do not like to think about it either. But when you hear the stories of real women who have grappled with it, you realize just how complex and painful and personal a decision it is. When you hear the stories of real women, it becomes very clear that we cannot legislate morality in this case. There’s just no way that you account for all of the situations people find themselves in in which choosing to terminate a pregnancy is a perfectly moral choice and such a personal one. Getting real women’s stories out there helps make the issue more concrete and personal, so that was really important. Opponents are really whittling away at reproductive rights by imposing—this again is related to the religious liberty law in a big way—they are imposing their religious restrictions on others’ behavior. So whether it’s the 20-week ban or the Hobby Lobby case or the laws in Arizona, it’s kind of all one piece.

SS: You are right; the way to get support for restrictions is to not allow moral complexity in real life stories but to just make it very simple and keep real women out of the picture because these stories are morally complicated. When you find yourself in a situation like that, those simplistic scenarios really don’t apply.

AH: If you keep it black and white, it is easy to imagine it would not affect someone you know or someone you love when the reality is that this issue confronts all kinds of women.

SS: I want to ask about outreach you did in the coalition to Latino communities. New Mexico and Albuquerque have a strong Latina population, and women in those communities were important in defeating the ban. So what did the outreach look like? What stake did Latina women have in these debates around reproductive justice?

AH: Well, let me just say that although my last name is Herrera, I myself am not Latina. However, my 18-year-old daughter does identify as Latina. And it is important to me that her voice, and the voices of women like her, are heard—and not just Latina women but Latino men too.

Latinos are a fast-growing part of the electorate and are changing the face of America. But their voices on reproductive justice have sometimes been ignored or silenced. There is this misperception that all Latinas and Latinos are Catholic and that they are therefore anti-choice. When in reality, Latinas and Latinos are thoughtful people of faith who value the right to make personal decisions in the context of the family and in consultation with their faith. They have their own moral compasses and voices that need to be heard.

I was concerned with making sure that their voices were heard, as was Respect Albuquerque Women, and there was a strong presence of Latinos in that coalition. A couple of the things I did: When we hosted a press conference here at First Unitarian Church, I was asked to prepare a statement in Spanish, so I did. I did not just translate my English statement into Spanish; I did some research about what the proper language is—some of these things are hard to translate. I did deliver a statement in Spanish that was picked up by Univision here in Albuquerque. The other thing I did was go on a local public radio station and did a show called Voces Feministas, or Feminist Voices, which is a show for Latinas and everyone else in the Albuquerque community. So, I spoke to the issue there—in English—as well.

SS: And the participation of the Latina community was very important in getting out the vote and defeating the ban.

AH: Absolutely. Also, when Respect Albuquerque Women was using our church campus as a base camp for their outreach, they were doing some phone banking in our social hall. I went in to volunteer for a few hours, and I discovered that there wasn’t a Spanish-language script. Probably about half of the numbers I was calling, I was getting Spanish speakers. So I quickly came up with a script that they could use too.

SS: That’s great. Let’s fly across the country and go from Albuquerque to Boston, where you worked as a birth doula. That’s a real-life experience that’s different from preaching and advocacy, but I imagine that those experiences would feed your work, theologically and in terms of advocacy. How did that shape you and what you’re doing?

AH: Being a birth doula was such a wonderful experience to give me chance to walk with women taking diverse approaches to child bearing. My job was one part educating but the other part companioning. So whatever their choices were for labor and birth and how they were going to parent their newborn baby, I was there to support and honor them and cheer them on in making thoughtful decisions that suited them. It was, in many ways, a piece of my reproductive work, which is about honoring the choices of women and their moral reasoning. It was a great way to experience a diversity of women and enjoy honoring their unique paths.

SS: My last question builds on that. You were talking about reproductive justice encompassing women having children and building families, as well as broader issues of health care. You are one of the participants in the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute this year. In this institute, the words faith and reproductive justice are connectedonly separated by the word “and.” What is the connection for you because so often they are seen as opposed?

AH: Oh, I think that faith and reproductive justice should always be connected with the word “and!” You know—as a mom, a doula, a person who works for reproductive justice, a faith leader—I know that the possibility of having children is one of the most amazing parts of creation. Absolutely a gift from God—not something to be taken lightly or forced upon someone. And likewise, an established human life—the lives of individual women are amazing. I want women to have the right to live into their lives fully [and] be the authors of their own lives. We can only do that with the full access to a full range of reproductive health options. In my mind as a faith leader, I work for reproductive justice because life is sacred.

SS: Amen! Thank you, Angela. Thank you for talking with us, and thank you for the work that you do. It really is amazing.

AH: Thank you for all that you do to support faith leaders and reproductive justice work. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.

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