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This interview is part of a podcast series on faith and reproductive justice, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The project aims to strengthen the leadership and increase the visibility of faith-based advocates who work on women’s reproductive health and rights. You can learn more about this project here.
Sally Steenland: My name is Sally Steenland and I direct the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative here at the Center for American Progress. With me today is Rabbi Dennis Ross. He is a religious advocate and congregational rabbi, serving Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York. Rabbi Ross is also the director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, a nationally recognized multifaith network of religious leaders supporting reproductive rights.
Rabbi Ross frequently appears in the media and has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Jewish Daily Forward, and other outlets. His most recent book is All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community. Rabbi Ross has taught at Hebrew Union College, Manhattanville College, Williams College, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he taught biomedical ethics.
Welcome, Rabbi Ross—we’re glad you’re with us today.
Rabbi Dennis Ross: Thank you so much for those generous words of introduction.
SS: Let’s start with your most recent book, All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community. In the book you say that faith helps us uphold a vision for a better world and we should talk about faith in the public square. At the same time, we should keep church and state separate. How do we do that?
DR: That’s a really big question. But everyone who lives in this country has a right—really, a responsibility—to make their beliefs known with policymakers and the community. We don’t lose that right just because we’re religious. And at the same time we can have separation of church and state.
SS: You’re saying that separation of church and state means you are allowed and even obligated, as you say, to bring your religious beliefs and argue them in the public square. I have had conservatives say to me, “There’s a real double standard here. Progressive faith leaders say it’s fine when people bring their faith into politics when it comes to protecting the environment or a woman’s right to choose. We really like that. But when conservatives lobby to protect unborn life or say they’re working for family values and it is a political agenda we don’t like, then we say, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to do that.’” Is it a double standard or is there a difference?
DR: That’s a great question. It’s one that I get asked a lot and I say that when it comes to abortion rights, there is a big difference between what I am asking for versus what opponents of abortion are asking for. They’re asking for their religious restriction to be imposed on the whole country. They’re saying it is wrong in their faith and, therefore, no one else should be allowed to have it.
My argument is that when it comes to religious restrictions, we have to keep church and state separate. We need laws and policies that allow, in this case, a woman to make her own personal, private decision about her pregnancy. Whether to raise a child, whether to opt for adoption, whether to end her pregnancy—she should be protected as she makes that personal decision. And for many women it’s a religious or spiritual decision. She’s entitled to religious liberty, to privacy; her needs come first.
As opposed to abortion opponents who are calling for their beliefs to be enshrined or codified as law, I am calling for each one of us to have the personal, private religious freedom that we are entitled to in our lives. So that’s the first very big difference.
The second major difference is that many opponents of abortion simply point to their religious teaching and say, “It’s forbidden,” and assume that’s the final word. Whereas in my denomination and many other denominations, we make our feelings known—and this goes back to your first question—and at the same time we expect policymakers to take other factors into consideration. What is the public health need? What does science show? So there are two very big differences, for starters, between what I am saying and what people that disagree with me are saying.
SS: It sounds as if one thing you are saying is that in a pluralistic democracy, everyone has the right to argue their case. You can go on TV, you can preach, stand on a soapbox, take out ads in the newspaper—that’s free speech. But there is a difference when it comes to codifying your particular theology into law. Then it becomes a legal matter and you’re forcing everybody, whether or not their conscience tells them to do something else, to follow that law.
DR: That’s what I am saying. I work in New York state and when our state legislature ratified marriage equality, we were in the halls lobbying and so were the opponents. The opponents started shouting, “God says NO!” So what are we going to say? “We believe God says yes!” So it became a shouting match.
What you had here was a very clear religious disagreement. What they wanted the state to do was walk in and referee what was essentially a religious dispute and declare one religion the winner. Now the state didn’t do that. Instead what we have is a law that says those religions that don’t want marriage equality or see something wrong with it don’t have to have these ceremonies in their houses of worship. The law protects them. Their clergy don’t have to officiate if they don’t want to.
On the other hand, in my congregation and many other denominations, we say that a same-gender relationship has the potential to become holy, where it reaches for the moral high ground and strengthens our community. Our ceremonies are recognized in the eyes of the state. It’s a law that protects everyone’s religious freedom and safeguards everybody’s religious practice. The state isn’t playing favorites. People can do what they want to do in their own houses of worship and in their private lives. They can act on their conscience and live as they believe. So here you have a situation where the state did right and allows each one of us religious liberty.
SS: I am really glad you pointed that out because to hear some conservatives talk about religious liberty—and it’s an issue that has been in the headlines this past year—and you’d think that religious liberty was hanging by a thread in this country. You’ve just pointed out all of these exemptions—if you’re a house of worship and don’t believe in marrying same-sex couples, or interfaith couples, or intergenerational couples, you don’t have to. Your religious liberty is protected.
But groups that are not houses of worship are complaining that because of marriage equality laws, or because of the contraceptive mandate in the health care law, their religious liberty is being violated. A religiously affiliated hospital, university, charity, and also for-profit companies where the owner happens to be religious, are saying they don’t want to provide contraception in health care plans for any of their employees. They could have thousands of employees of all different faiths.
DR: I am glad you brought up the birth control provision under the Affordable Care Act, because as folks may know, beginning last summer, insurance companies began covering birth control for women under the Affordable Care Act. And first you want to make clear: No one is getting free birth control. No one is giving out free birth control. The birth control coverage is getting paid for by the women who work and earn it—you know—it’s theirs!
The reality is the person who works and earns the insurance, like they earn their salary and their pension, also earns their insurance coverage for birth control. And again, the Department of Health and Human Services has bent over backward to try to accommodate those religious objections. And I believe they’ve reached a very fair and equitable solution. There are more than 300,000 to 350,000 churches, synagogues, mosques in this country who do not have to include birth control insurance coverage in their employer-sponsored health plan. These religious organizations already are exempt.
What the dust-up is now is hospitals with religious affiliation. They are not the arms of the church; they are nonprofit businesses that hire people from all walks of life and provide secular services to people from all walks of life. These religiously affiliated hospitals are not religious institutions like churches, synagogues, and the like. They hire people from across the religious spectrum, many of them from faiths like mine that recognize the moral good in access to birth control and believe that the needs of the insured woman carry a moral high ground over someone else’s objection. So if she decides she needs basic health care—which is what birth control is—she should be able to get it under her insurance plan without her boss barging in and saying, “Gee, it’s against my religion!”
You know, all we’re asking is for somebody in the human resources department to pass a few pieces of paper across their desk that have the words “birth control” written on it. That doesn’t have the same moral claim as a woman at a pharmacy counter saying, “Can I have my prescription refill?” She’s the one who’s going to need that and it’s none of her bosses’ business. I think the Health and Human Services Department made a wonderful accommodation. I think everybody ought to be satisfied with it and life should move on. I also think that here in New York state, we have a similar kind of policy in terms of insurance coverage for birth control; it’s been on the books for a decade. It works well, it has been tested in the highest court in our state, it stands. There’s a similar provision in California and I hope the Affordable Care Act stands as it does as it works its way through the courts.
SS: I really like what you said about women earning their health insurance, which is absolutely right. Another thing is that nobody is forcing women; this is an option for employees. As you know many women take birth control for medical reasons. Their doctor prescribes it because it reduces their risk of ovarian cancer or they have ovarian cysts. And then what do you do? It’s like bringing your boss a note. It’s horrible to even think of; it sounds very 19th century.
DR: It would roll back the clock in a bad way, by decades and decades.
SS: It sure would. I want to ask you about Concerned Clergy for Choice. Tell us about the group.
DR: I work in New York state where we have a very long history in advocacy for reproductive rights and reproductive advocacy for women and families. The very first birth control clinic in the United States opened up in 1916 in Brooklyn. I hit the Smith College archives and I found a letter from Rabbi Maxwell Silver from the synagogue in Flushing who invited the very first birth-control educators and advocates to speak from the pulpit of his congregation here in New York. That’s in 1921.
Then in 1970 the very first abortion clinic in the country opened in Manhattan, East 73rd Street. So the state has a very strong and wonderful history in advocacy for family-planning services for women and families.
And our work here at Concerned Clergy for Choice—we are a network of 1,000 clergy; we have ministers from Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian churches, and more. We have rabbis like myself; we have Muslim leaders, and Buddhists—we’re quite a diverse bunch. And right now we are working with advocates here in New York state to enact the Women’s Equality Agenda proposed by Gov. Cuomo. It’s a 10-point agenda that would strengthen protections against human trafficking, help ensure equal pay for women at work, strengthen protections against sexual harassment, and make sure that a woman’s health is protected through her pregnancy, which is a very important need here in New York state.
New York was one of the first states to legalize abortion in 1970. It was a wonderful law in its time but it has to be updated to protect the health of the woman. So that’s what we are working on right now. The governor is very strongly behind it and we are looking forward to seeing the legislation passed and enacted.
SS: Let me just play devil’s advocate for a minute. If somebody said to you, “You’re a man of God. How can you be in favor of a woman killing her baby? How can you be in favor of abortion?” So give me what you say to that.
DR: Well, first of all, it’s a good question and I am not taking a position on abortion. It’s really for the woman to make a decision. We don’t walk in her shoes, we don’t know what her life is like; she’s really the expert in herself. And it’s not for any legislative body or religious leader to barge into her life and tell her, “You have to carry your pregnancy to term.”
Secondly, to my faith and in many faiths, we understand that a pregnancy has a moral standing. However, it’s the woman’s moral standing that’s higher. It’s her decision making, it’s her life, her responsibility to determine her destiny and her future. And making sure that she is able to do that, we make sure she has access to birth control and teens have access to sex education. And we want to make sure that if she and her doctor decide that her pregnancy isn’t right for her, that she should be able to take the steps she needs to take to end it and be able to get safe and legal abortion.
SS: One thing I find often in talking to faith leaders is if you want to say “pro-choice,” it’s because the issue is not theoretical. Often when women are making this decision, they talk to their clergy, to their rabbi, their priest, or their minister. And so faith leaders like yourself hear stories and I think what changes theory into a more complex reality is hearing what some of those real stories are. I think it makes it a lot harder to judge.
DR: Absolutely. You know, to go back to your previous question and move into this one, my faith has a different teaching and many faiths have different teachings about the Bible, about the nature of God, about what happens after we die. And we also have different teachings about intimate life. One faith may have one teaching about abortion; mine has a different one. And you’re right that our teachings are informed by our experiences as pastors to women and families.
I was a number of years ago at a cemetery for a ceremony for an older woman and the son of the deceased pointed to a grave of a woman; she was in her earlier twenties. She died around 1935 or so, and he says, “Rabbi, this was my aunt. She died of a botched abortion.” That shouldn’t happen to a woman. Because her moral standing takes precedence. Her health, her decision making. She comes first in my faith.
SS: It sounds like as you look at this year, you are going to be working hard for the Women’s Equality Agenda to pass. Are there other priorities for you in the coming days? And related to that, some of this work is very challenging, and when you get up in the morning, what gives you energy, what gives hope so that you say, “OK, I am going to go to work today,” and not just turn over and put the covers over your head?
DR: As you know, one of the things that motivated me to write All Politics Is Religious is that we too often hear only one side of the religious spectrum when it comes to intimate life. So it’s really important that our communities hear from everybody and we find that many of our clergy aren’t sure what to say or they need support. And they want to work with others and show that their whole faith and their whole denomination has a certain approach to sex education for teens or access to birth control.
So, I think one of the most important things to me: empowering our clergy with the skills, with the knowledge, with how to use social media, how to talk to the press, how to decide whether or not to take an interview when you get a press call, how to understand all these things that we never really learned in seminary but we knew we need to know. I mean, when I was first ordained and I’d get a call from a reporter, I thought I had to answer that question on the spot. Nobody in the world does that. Even reporters don’t expect you to. So I had a lot to learn, and our clergy also.
We also have a wonderful day of advocacy, Clergy Day, on April 22 in Albany, New York, where religious leaders from across the state will be coming to the state capitol to call for the passing of the Women’s Equality Agenda. And again, this is a bill that keeps church and state separate; it protects religious liberty and it will protect the well-being of all the women and families in New York state.
What gets me out of bed in the morning … you know, I was a congregational rabbi for 25 years and I had written a couple of books; I was a licensed social worker as you mentioned. I taught bioethics. I always saw myself as a congregational rabbi and never imagined myself doing anything else. And I left my congregation in Massachusetts and a few people said, “You should look into this position with Family Planning Advocates and direct Concerned Clergy for Choice and working with Planned Parenthood.” And this was nine years ago.
When I interviewed for the job and was offered it and accepted, I had no idea what I would be doing. And it’s a whole new window of living out the social justice teaching that I was preaching about; seeing how religion plays out in making public policy. Especially here in New York state, there are religious lobbyists in the capitol each day of the week. They are speaking, sharing their beliefs, while trying to impose their beliefs about intimacy onto others who follow different faith teachings. They are advocating for public funding for religious education; they are talking about a host of things that people just don’t know about. And I think it is just getting the word out.
The other thing I found is that our policymakers really want to hear what their constituents think; they want to hear what their clergy think; they want to hear what their faith communities think. They hear much less from the public than you might expect. And most of what they hear is negative. People will call in to complain. One of the most important things I learned here is that when a policymaker does something you like, call up and say thanks. You see them on TV, they need to hear that, they count those calls.
I was giving a speech in Barney Frank’s district—former Congressman Frank’s district. And I said, “You know, you gotta call your congressman and tell them what you think!” And someone said, “Why should I call Barney Frank? He’s perfect on every issue!” It’s because if you count every issue, there may be two dozen, and when he hears from you, he will know which one to put first. You have one guy with a limited staff and he has to prioritize. You’re going to help him and everybody likes to hear a word of thanks. So all this is very important. After all my years as a congregational rabbi, I am now a religious advocate, and I work with a wonderful team here at Family Planning Advocates and I just love the work.
SS: Well, I want to give you a word of thanks because I really appreciate your including women’s reproductive health as a core issue. We know that these are tricky issues to talk about. A lot of people shy away from them or see them as sideline issues and not as important as economic or other issues, when we know they are closely connected. And as you said earlier, religion is a damaged brand among a lot of people because it is perceived as negative and even bigoted. When you’re out there in the public square and you’re connecting these issues, it’s important. You’re a person of faith and that’s really an important thing to do too. So huge thanks from all of us for this good work you are doing.
DR: Thank you.
SS: And thanks for talking with us today.
DR: Thanks for the invitation. I really enjoyed our time together.
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. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.