The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
Rush Limbaugh’s insults against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke have sparked a national controversy. Today (Wednesday), I’ll be discussing Limbaugh (and my book about him) on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show (6-7pm ET) and Thursday on the public radio show To the Point (2pm ET).
But Limbaugh’s attacks on Fluke are also a reminder of the fact that we should stand for real religious liberty. Not the nonexistent “freedom” of religious institutions to deny medical care to their students, but the individual religious freedom of people to make their own health care choices.
Limbaugh’s very personal assault on an individual woman clarified this debate about contraception and religious liberty. It had been framed as a debate about the so-called “academic freedom” of religious colleges and the religious liberty of employers against women’s health.
But I want to argue that this is indeed an issue of religious liberty and academic freedom. It’s a simple question of whether rights belong to individuals or to groups.
There is no such thing as a collective Constitutional right for religious groups; there is only individual religious freedom. Yes, religious organizations are protected, but only because of the individual rights of the people who constitute them. The only mention of religious organizations in the First Amendment is a prohibition on “an establishment of religion.” The same is true of academic freedom: there is no such thing as a Constitutional right of institutional academic freedom. Colleges and universities as institutions receive some protection from government intrusion only to help protect the individual rights of the employees and students who constitute a college. When an institutional policy infringes upon an individual’s academic freedom, no misguided concept of “institutional academic freedom” can overrule the real academic freedom that belongs to individuals.
When Georgetown University prohibits Sandra Fluke from receiving contraceptive coverage in her health care plan, and imposes its religious values upon her, it is violating her religious liberty and her academic freedom. Georgetown cannot invoke religious liberty and academic freedom in the name of taking away an individual’s right to liberty.
This is Sandra Fluke’s health insurance. She pays for it ($1,895 a year), and while it may be organized and partially subsidized by Georgetown, it belongs to her. No employer, no university, has a right to infringe upon the individual’s religious liberty to choose health care according to his or her own religious values.
I’m sure some people will point out that Fluke knew that Georgetown was a Catholic institution which refused to cover contraception when she choose to attend. That’s true. In the real world, nobody works at or attends a perfect university. It might be unwise to attend a religious institution if it will limit your individual liberty, but the blame for those violations of individual liberty still falls upon the university, not the student. If a professor works at a religious institution that limits academic freedom, the AAUP (and all of us) should still condemn that college if it fires the professor for his or her beliefs.
And if a government policy protects gender equality and religious liberty in medical coverage for all individuals no matter what the religious beliefs of the employer or the college, we should praise it.
If Georgetown University decides that it doesn’t like contraception, then it is perfectly free to express that opposition to contraception. Georgetown is still free to rationally persuade its students, by force of argument, to refuse birth control bills and other forms of contraception. That’s the kind of academic freedom Georgetown administrators have, the right to speak freely without imposing their misguided religious beliefs on all students and employees.
Rush Limbaugh’s insulting remarks have led to a national discussion about sexism and hateful speech. But they should also lead us to a more enlightened debate about the true meaning of religious liberty and the individuals who hold it.