Don’t tear down this wall: How abortion care coverage tests church and state separation

Prohibiting medical coverage for explicitly religious reasons erodes the foundation our democracy depends on

May 22, 2023 5:00 am

At the intersection of Church and State Street in Salem, Oregon. (Getty image)

Debates about abortion, perhaps above all issues at this moment, test our ability to tolerate differing worldviews. That’s what makes abortion a good example of why our founders established a separation between any church and the state. And why we still need that boundary. 

We pride ourselves in Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom that animated our first European settlers and influenced the thinking of America’s founders. These visionaries recognized, and articulated, that religious freedom for all, not just for some, only exists when we can tolerate each other’s varying beliefs. And not just tolerate them, but legally certify that the majority, through the government, cannot enforce any one set of religious proscriptions upon those not in the fold. The government stays, for the most part, away from regulating religious practices, and religious proscriptions do not factor into governmental functions. 

This practice, almost 250 years in, is still hard in our religiously plural society. For one thing, each denomination must tolerate behavior in those outside their group that would be intolerable within it. Non-Muslim women do not cover up, and devout Muslims must accept living among them. Hindus in America must tolerate neighbors who slaughter and eat cows in great numbers. There is no meaningful push to encourage all women to cover themselves, nor to stop the killing of cows.

The belief that life begins at conception, and pregnancy should never be terminated, is, for most, based in the current tenets of their faith. It seems difficult for some, from protestors outside of women’s health clinics to Supreme Court justices, to understand and respect that their faith-based worldview that all abortions are murder may even contradict the deeply held religious beliefs of others. In one example, the various Jewish traditions differ on when a fetus becomes a person deserving of rights, but always require the community to privilege the life of the mother. A complete ban on abortion may be seen as violating the religious freedom of women in these and other traditions. 

Those of us who are morally opposed to war are still required to fund the Pentagon through our taxes, even when this support may violate our religious beliefs.

In Rhode Island, abortion is legal, but until very recently, insurance coverage for abortion was not available to those who have state sponsored health insurance, and to Medicaid recipients. It is unusual for a state to limit one form of legal health care to two large groups of its citizens; a bill to rectify this situation recently passed the Rhode Island Legislature and was signed into law last Thursday. Objections to this change referenced explicitly religious reasoning. Rep. Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat who is pro-choice, nonetheless argued on the floor that the state should not “mandate taxpayers who — for personal reasons or religious reasons — do not agree with abortion to have to pay for it.” 

This is a more nuanced argument than others have offered on this issue. But it still suggests that the state might want to allow some religious beliefs to be exempt from the separation we are committed to maintain. In perhaps the best example of why this is a slippery slope, those of us who are morally opposed to war are still required to fund the Pentagon through our taxes, even when this support may violate our religious beliefs. War tax resistance – the refusal to pay some or all of one’s income tax to avoid funding the machinery of war – is not considered by the government to be an acceptable action; it is illegal. This is not materially different, as Democratic Rep. Edith Ajello of Providence, a sponsor of the bill, recognized during the debates. 

Maybe it is not unexpected that centuries after our founding we have strayed from our national determination to keep religion out of our legal and governmental systems. The Mayor of New York City, among others, has explicitly said that he no longer believes in the separation of church and state. But the issues our founders identified remain. In a society with multiple faiths, each claiming to be the absolute and only way, it is a recipe for conflict if we cannot maintain this separation. We are experiencing those conflicts even with the smallest cracks in that “wall.”


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Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.