What would a reasonable religious freedom law look like?

The Federal RFRA was signed for good reasons. One of the causes was that Native Americans were denied unemployment benefits after being fired for using peyote as part of their religious practices. So, people who believed that freedom of religion does actually mean everybody’s religion worked together to get the RFRA passed.  Back in the 90s, bipartisan efforts were still a thing, and this was supported by everybody from the ACLU to the National Association of Evangelicals and approved near-unanimously in both houses of Congress.

But now, religious freedom means something very different to the religious right.  It means the right to compel others to abide by your beliefs, or to deny them services because you don’t approve of their “lifestyle.”  Not only do you get to go to whatever church you want, you should be able to kick them out of your restaurant or not rent to them because they’re gay.  The interpretation of the Federal RFRA has gone way off the rails, and states are passing laws that are *called* RFRAs but are really much broader than that.  And strangely enough, it’s primarily Christians who are benefiting from the license to discriminate.

First off, I want to acknowledge that there are legitimate situations where a business owner with deeply held beliefs should have the right to refuse service. I can think of two major ones.  The first is being asked to create content that violates your beliefs. If a bakery doesn’t want to write a message they disagree with on a cake or a publisher or an editor doesn’t want to contribute to a book they find distasteful, they shouldn’t be required to.  That’s not just a religious freedom thing, but a free speech one as well.  So, if you’re a baker who believes being gay is a sin, it’s fine for you to refuse to make a glittery rainbow cake that says “Congrats on Your Fabulous Gay Wedding.”  Not fine is refusing to make a white cake with flowers like you’d make for anybody else.

Secondly, I think being required to participate in an event that’s against your religion should be protected against.  If you’re a die-hard Baptist photographer and you feel it would be a sin to photograph a wedding where alcohol is served, even if it’s communion wine, you shouldn’t have to.  But if you’re a die-hard Baptist *florist*, you shouldn’t be able to refuse to make flower arrangements just because you disapprove of the drinking that will happen at the wedding, when you don’t even have to be there.  Nor should you be able to refuse to provide pizzas for a wedding you don’t approve of. (I don’t think dropping off food really constitutes “participating” in an event, though I can see where staying through the reception and serving food could be.)  Likewise, if it’s a location that your beliefs literally forbid you from setting foot in, you shouldn’t have to.  (For example, I think some religions don’t allow their adherents to even go into other religions’ houses of worship.)  *But* if someone says, “Okay, no problem, we’ll pick the food up at your place” or “That’s fine, the bride’s mom lives across the street, we can meet you there,” then I think you need to serve them.

I also think that if you want to enforce a behavior standard in your own private establishment, that’s fine *as long as* the standard is equally applied.  No kicking a gay couple out for PDA when all they did was hold hands when you wouldn’t even speak to a straight couple unless they were swapping spit.

Edit: Snarky comment about pizza for a wedding removed because, as Melissa McEwan pointed out, that’s really classist. And between having grown up solidly blue collar, though not poor, and having panicked about every buck spent on my own wedding, I really should know better.

Thoughts on Trigger Warnings – Part 1, some definitions

A recent open thread at Alas included discussion of trigger warnings in college courses (and more generally). I’ve been meaning to write a post on trigger warnings and hadn’t yet, so now seems like a good time.  I have lots of thoughts, so this may be multiple posts.

First off, let’s start with a definition of terms. As is pretty widely understood, a trigger is something that results in either an adverse mental health event, such as a panic attack or a flashback, or that prompts a relapse of self-harming behaviors (e.g.,  a calorie count for someone with an eating disorder). It’s commonly misunderstood, whether deliberately or not, as anything upsetting or controversial.

Because I like divisions and categories, I want to break triggers down further into three types:  Practically Universal, Common, and Individual.

Practically Universal – Things so disturbing that they’re likely to be triggering by their very nature, even to people without relevant mental illnesses or traumatic life events.  Extremes of graphic violence and torture, for example.

Common – Not likely to be triggering to people without relevant mental illness or traumatic life events, but related to pretty common traumas. Things that many people will find disturbing, to a greater or lesser degree, and that a lot of people with mental health issues or traumatic life events would find traumatic. Violence, rape, abuse, etc.  These might vary between groups.  For example, diet talk is a much more common trigger in fat acceptance spaces than in the general public, because a larger percentage of the readership includes people with or recovering from eating disorders, or people with histories of trauma or even abuse related to dieting.

Individual – Pretty much anything else.  Highly specific triggers that affect one individual with, say, PTSD, but not another. Things that might seem completely innocuous to most people, and are only triggering because they’re linked to some trauma.

One of the ways discussions of trigger warnings get side-tracked is when people assume that if common or practically universal triggers are warned for, that’s a slippery slope to including not only the individual triggers of anyone with a mental illness who might come anywhere near the conversation, but also anything remotely controversial or upsetting. It’s not possible to warn for every possible trigger, the argument goes, so there’s no point warning for any of them.  To me, that’s extremely illogical.  Just because you can’t do something perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth bothering to do at all.  Also, it isn’t as if trigger warnings are some strange and onerous thing. We warn for triggers in all sorts of contexts, though we usually don’t call it that.  TV and movies come with ratings, and shows with content that’s likely to be disturbing are often preceded by a summary of the type of content and “Viewer Discretion Advised.”  Trigger warnings as such seem to come up primarily in contexts that don’t have the normal mechanisms of describing (and even warning about content). Like blogs, where one post might be about cute puppies and the next might be about rape or murder.  Or college courses, where potential topics are pretty much limitless.

Another common fallacy is the equation of trigger warnings with censorship.  For something to be censored implies that it can’t be shown or discussed at all, or that controversial parts are cut out.  Simply informing someone about the content of a reading assignment or blog entry isn’t censorship. Is it possible for trigger warnings to lead to censorship? Sure, if those warnings are used to ban content or require it to be altered.  But that’s a separate decision.

“All I want for Christmas is fat-shaming”—said no one ever.

Ragen has a new post up on combating holiday weight shame.   This is really timely for me, because I’ll be spending Thanksgiving with family members, a couple of whom have been all about the “fat=lazy/stupid” memes on Facebook lately.  To their credit, neither of them has given me personal grief about my weight in years, but the generalized comments are irksome all by themselves.

I will admit, fully and freely, to being oversensitive about other people’s crappy, thoughtless comments.  If someone makes a vague, general statement, and there’s a way for me to take it personally, I’m probably going to do just that.  That’s my own issue to work out, and not anybody else’s problem.  But at the same time, it’s also not my job to take comments that are explicitly nasty toward fat people in the best possible light, and jump straight to “Oh, they didn’t mean it in a *bad* way.” or “Oh, they think that way about fat people in *general* but I’m sure they make a special exception for me.” I’ve said before that I’m pretty convinced that if you’re an asshole online, you’re an asshole in “real life” too.  You may be an asshole with more tact in some situations than others, or an asshole with a good sense of what you can get away with, or an asshole who’s good at compartmentalizing, but that doesn’t make you not an asshole.

I’m still working on whether it’s worth saying something, privately, when people spew ugliness on Facebook that implicitly insults me. Commenting to the post itself is pointless; I’ve learned that many times.  In addition to immediately putting them on the defensive, it usually means you get a ration of crap from *their* friends too.

Fortunately, people tend to have better manners in face-to-face interactions than online ones, but not necessarily by much.  In Ragen’s post, she mentions a poll where 42% of people 18-24 would hesitate to tell a loved one they should lose weight, for fear that they’d hurt their feelings.  So, this means that 58% of 18-24 year-olds are sufficiently lacking in tact that they think unsolicited inexpert medical advice is not just acceptable, but that they’re doing the recipient a *favor.* Admittedly, they’re only believing what they’ve been told. They live in a culture that preaches 24/7 that fat is the worst thing ever, while simultaneously pretending that it’s possible to be fat in that same culture for ten minutes and somehow be unaware of it. They live in a culture where articles like the one Ragen cited can actually say ““if someone close to you has a large waistline then as long as you do it sensitively, discussing it with them now could help them avoid critical health risks later down the line and could even save their life” with a straight face.  Well, six different kinds of diets didn’t work, but now that you’ve *mentioned* it, that will magically make things better. You’re also totally the first person who’s ever told them this.  Sure, you are. You might be the first person who’s told them *today*, at least if they haven’t watched any television or flipped through a magazine.

I think the answer, online or off, is boundaries—what Ragen refers to as the Underpants Rule, where you accept that other people get to make decisions for their own lives, regardless of whether you like those decisions.  And, another thing people get to choose for themselves is what they’re willing to put up with. Frequently, if you actually enforce boundaries, people will back off.  They don’t necessarily mean to be rude; they’re just living in a culture that tells them that as long as they mean well and are “sensitive” (whatever that means) that giving you grief about your appearance is okay.

And the awesome thing about culture is that, as much as people are affected by it, they also create it. You can’t, all by yourself, rewrite the cultural narratives about fat, but you can add your own message into the mix. It’s not always much. Sometimes it’s like throwing pebbles into a huge lake, but the ripples do spread.

The Little Black Yippy Dog: A Post on Anxiety Disorder

A common metaphor for depression is a black dog, a constant, menacing presence, lurking wherever you go. I don’t have depression, but anxiety, which I do have, is often thought of as a different side of the same coin. I think anxiety is a black dog too, but definitely a different breed. It’s more of a tiny, nervous black dog who’s scared of everything, constantly running around your ankles barking his head off. If you’ve ever had, or lived next door to, a dog who Must. Bark. At. Everything., you can appreciate this.

Having anxiety is kind of like having that little black yippy dog living in your brain, barking his head off at every stress or worry or task. Trying to actually work productively on those tasks is especially tricky, because whatever you’re paying attention to, the little dog wants to bark about something else, or about what happens if you don’t do the thing right, or about the next thing you have to do. It’s not just, “I have to email people about a potential problem.” It’s “Oh my gosh, what if they blame me? YIPYIPYIP! What if I say the wrong thing or they take it wrong? YIPYIPYIP! What else do I need to do about this problem? Should I call this person, or find out X fact before I even send this email? YIPYIPYIP! Oh,and after I write this, I need to do the dishes and probably clean off the table and fold the laundry piled on my bed, oh, crap why is there too much stuff to do?! YIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIPYIP!!!”

Everything feels like your fault, or your problem, because Yippy will make it your problem. It doesn’t matter if the bad thing actually happened, or is likely to happen, or might maybe happen if six other bad things happen first. No matter how likely it is, Yippy’s going to bark about it. And the barking makes it harder to just do the thing you need to do in the first place, and that worries Yippy, so he barks *more*.

He’s a lot easier to deal with than the big black dog of depression. For one thing, he really is trying to help, not actively trying to kill you, much like a real life barky dog is sincerely trying to help by warning you that that shady mailman is back again, and the neighbors’ kids playing in the yard are almost certainly up to no good. Yippy is also usually a lot easier to put in a crate or on a leash than the black dog of depression is (the containment tools being meds and therapy in this extended metaphor). He can’t be reasoned with, but he can at least be soothed. But the incessant barking gets old, and it can be hard to try to go anywhere without him underfoot tripping you up. Also, when you constantly have “YIPYIPYIP! The sky is falling! YIPYIPYIP!” running through your head, It’s easy to believe that the sky really is falling, and that everything is a major catastrophe that I have to somehow fix *now.* And that urgent sense of “gotta fix everything or the world will fall apart” is unhelpful, to say the least.

A couple really good posts about what’s actually helpful for people with depression have been making the rounds lately: one a Facebook note and one on Captain Awkward. I’m definitely guilty of “helping” friends badly in the ways that are mentioned here. Of trying to cheer the person up, or remind them of happy shiny things. I realized recently that part of that is my own issues interacting with theirs in a very unhelpful way. There’s this desperation to fix them, to push them into being okay, which I’m pretty sure is the little black yippy dog tugging at my pants leg, barking and whining for me to *do something* and that I have to *fix this NOW (YIPYIPYIP!). So I need to step back and remind myself that no matter what Yippy thinks, not everything is my responsibility, or within my power, to fix. I can’t make someone else (or myself) happy through sheer force of will, and I will make things worse if I try. Also, that incessant optimism that depressed and cynical friends find so grating? Pretty sure it’s a defense mechanism to convince Yippy that, no, the sky really isn’t falling.

This isn’t to make someone else’s problems about my problems, because how self-centered is that? It’s more, wow, here’s something that makes it harder for me to be a good friend; let me work on that. So, if I show up at your house when you’re going through a rough patch, I will probably have little Yippy with me. (If only I could put him in a crate for 8-9 hours with a peanut butter Kong like I can with my actual dogs.) But I promise to bring his crate, and his treats, and when he starts barking, I will plant his fuzzy butt in the farthest corner of the house, pay more attention to you than him, and not do any of the unhelpful things that come to mind just to get him to stop barking at me.

So very many things wrong with the Hobby Lobby decision

The Supreme Court decided last week that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to closely held corporations as well as to individual people, and that because of that, the ACA’s standards for insurance coverage that include contraception cannot be applied to companies with religious conflicts with contraception. The RFRA doesn’t explicitly apply to corporations, but as part of the growing trend that corporations are people, the Court ruled that they are in this case. (Citizens United wasn’t explicitly cited in the court’s opinion, but was brought up by the plaintiffs.)

There are so very many problems with this ruling that I don’t know where to begin.

The first giant problem with the ever-expanding “corporations are people” argument is that one of the primary reasons companies incorporate is to limit liability for the individuals involved. Giving more and more individual rights to corporations means we’re approaching the situation (if we’re not there already) where a corporation has all the rights of a person, but few to none of the responsibilities. In this case, Hobby Lobby’s owners get the benefits of being legally separated from their company, but none of the drawbacks. They get to apply their personal beliefs to the corporation, but the corporation’s liabilities aren’t applied to them as individuals. So, if an employee with severe fibroids and blood clotting issues (so no pill) can’t get an IUD and has severe anemia or ends up in the hospital getting massive blood transfusions, she can sue the company, but not the owners. They get to stand at a safe distance from the effects of their own decisions. If you want your company to be an extension of you, then maybe don’t incorporate.

Also, the case is based on the companies’ stated belief that the four contraception methods they object to (ella, Plan B, and both hormonal and copper IUDs) are abortifacents. That’s blatantly not true. First off, preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is not an abortion. It’s not. Period. Words mean things. Now, you can have a religious belief that a fertilized egg is a person and that it’s wrong to end its existence. (That creates all kinds of slippery slopes because so many fertilized eggs just don’t implant anyway—you could claim that almost *anything* might potentially prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.) But you don’t get to call it “abortion,” not if you’re being honest. In the same way, you’re free to believe that people shouldn’t kiss until they’re married, but you can’t redefine kissing as “premarital sex.” Secondly, Plan B *doesn’t* prevent implantation. (The FDA label says that it “may” while further studies have shown that it doesn’t.)

This is a huge issue, because you can have religious beliefs about absolutely anything, and if observable facts can be ignored, there’s really no limit to what you could claim religious protection for.

Another issue is that Hobby Lobby self-insures. People defending the decision point to that as a reason they should be exempt. Two problems with that. One, no law requires them to self-insure. That’s their choice. If it creates a moral conflict with them regarding birth control, they’re free to get insurance from an insurance company like most other employers do. But more than that, the fact that they self-insure means that they’re selling a product, insurance coverage, to their employees. Employees pay into a pool for self-insurance, just as they pay some or all of their insurance premiums when their employer uses an insurance company. The ACA sets standards for that product, which Hobby Lobby’s insurance doesn’t comply with.

So because of their religious beliefs, they get to sell a substandard product to a nearly captive audience. Despite the exchanges, employer health insurance is often the only affordable option for most people. Even worse, people with employer-provided insurance don’t qualify for subsidies for the exchanges, and Hobby Lobby gets tax benefits for providing insurance. So, to recap, they get to receive tax benefits for something they’re not actually doing, disqualify their employees for a government benefit that they should qualify for, and sell a substandard product.

Additionally, for all the people saying it’s totally not a problem because they cover 16 of the 20 methods, the *reason* that there are so many different methods of birth control is that not all of them work for everyone. (I’ve personally been on at least half a dozen pills and a couple other hormonal methods.) There are different benefits and side-effects, there are different medical conditions that interact with birth control methods in different ways. IUDs are excluded, for example, despite being one of the most reliable methods. Additionally, IUDs are used for many of the same non-pregnancy reasons that pills are (PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, etc.) and don’t have the same risks with blood clotting.

Not to mention that emergency contraception is a different medical need entirely, one that other hormonal methods don’t really meet. If the condom breaks, making an appointment with your doctor to start on Ortho-Tricyclene or Depo-Provera isn’t going to help the immediate issue. Covering contraception but not emergency contraception is like saying, “We’re already covering your SSRI, why should we pay for Xanax too?” or “We’re covering your maintenance asthma meds; you don’t need an inhaler.”

If a woman has a strong medical need to not be pregnant (and let’s say she’s married to avoid the “keep your legs shut” bs), her doctor might recommend an IUD as the best option. She may well have tried other hormonal methods, or may have specific contraindications for those methods. But Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court apparently know better than her and her doctor what’s medically necessary.

Also, if Hobby Lobby’s opposition to these forms of contraception is so sincere, how is it that they covered them previously? Not to mention investing in companies that produce them, and buying everything from China, land of mandatory abortions (real abortions, not “abortions” that happen when a fertilized egg maybe doesn’t implant).

The other issue is the giant door this opens up. If Hobby Lobby can opt out of covering 4 methods, certainly a Catholic business owner can opt out of all 20. (In fact, the Supreme Court later stated that their ruling did apply to all methods.) And despite the opinion stating that it’s not relevant to other exemptions from other treatments (e.g., blood transfusions, anything based on stem cells, mental health), the logic is exactly the same. Not to mention the rather terrifying precedent that a company can have a religious objection to any generally applicable law, and that a belief that you only hold when it costs you money and not when it makes you money still counts as “sincerely held.”

Freedom and Vaccination

So, recently on the Unfundamentalist Christians page, the discussion came up about a recent ruling that people who choose not to vaccinate their kids for religious reasons don’t get to send them to school during an outbreak. One person was arguing that this is a slippery slope to letting the government decide what you do with your body if you can’t afford to homeschool, and that it’s not really a serious public health concern anyway because it doesn’t affect the majority. (To be fair, he was fine with keeping unvaccinated kids home during an outbreak, but was concerned the decision could lead to not letting them attend public school at all.)

That’s obviously a fairly weak argument, especially the bit about the majority. The majority of people will never get cancer, either (one in two men and one in three women, according to the American Cancer Society). So, let’s just not worry about that, because natural selection will sort it out, right?

The other thing that people don’t get is that vaccines, while really really useful, are not perfect. Adults end up with a much less effective vaccine over time if they don’t get regular boosters. Not to mention that if you get enough of a virus in your system, it can overwhelm your immune system, even with the “extra training” it got from a vaccine. So, yes, choosing not to vaccinate, if enough people do it, does have risks for the vaccinated population.

I thought that whole “the government telling me what I have to put into my body” line of argument was interesting, because it seems to be a common trend in discussions of religious freedom. It’s the idea that not only are your religious beliefs and practices protected, but that the consequences of those beliefs should be applied to other people, rather than to you. It’s the idea that if you choose to make your child a health risk to the kids around him, that figuring out how to deal with that is the school’s problem, not yours. There are examples of this all over. It’s the expectation that if you’re a pharmacist who gets fired for refusing to provide birth control, you’re a victim of persecution rather than someone who chose a poor career fit and then refused to do their job. It’s not up to you to find a job that fits your beliefs. Rather, it’s up to your employer to work around it or your customers to put up with crappy treatment. Or if you work at the courthouse and don’t want to sign same-sex marriage licenses, you shouldn’t have to, even if that screws over taxpayers who came in expecting you to do the job you’re being paid for.

Or, recently, if you’re a secular business owner who chooses to be willfully misinformed about the nature of contraceptives, you can get all the tax benefits of providing insurance without actually meeting the minimum legal standards for that coverage.

I’m a big believer in religious freedom. But I don’t think it should be a Get Out of Jail Free card for any rule you feel shouldn’t apply to you. Particularly not when you’re asking other people—whether those are your employees, the taxpayers, or your kid’s classmates—to shoulder the burden of your beliefs.

Redditors hit rock-bottom, then break out the dynamite

I’m pretty much past being shocked by the hateful things people say to and about fat people for daring to exist in the world, but every once in a while, the trolls still manage to surprise me. In this case, it’s a bunch of redditors making fun of a woman with a spinal injury who’s trying to raise the three grand she needs for a scooter on GoFundMe. Because, you know, she’s fat, and obviously spinal injuries magically fix themselves if you lose weight.

Atchka’s post at Fierce Freethinking Fatties has a really good explanation of the situation, as well as what it illustrates about fat hatred. Casey is literally the poster child for “doing everything right.” She has a medical issue that’s responsible for her weight, and she was extremely active until she had a freaking spinal fracture. And yet, none of that counts for anything in the minds of the haters. If you’re fat, you literally cannot be active enough to prove to these people that you aren’t spending 23 and a half hours a day on the couch eating donuts. They can see pictures of you dancing, running, whatever, and they will make up weird justifications for why that isn’t real exercise, deliberately misunderstand things you say, or otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and go “LALALA, can’t hear you! LOL UR FAT.” You could literally lap them on the track, running backwards and blindfolded, and they’d find some way to claim that they’re more active—and therefore a more worthwhile person–than you.

This comes only a few days after one of Ragen Chastain’s obsessed trolls sent out a phony fact-checking email about her dance championships, trying to “prove” that she hasn’t really won competitions.

I do understand where it comes from. Cognitive dissonance is not a fun feeling, so it’s easy to twist reality to suit your biases. And everybody does that to some extent. But the extent of willful denial of reality these people show, not to mention the level of obsession required to spend hours of your life trashing someone on a forum or sending fraudulent emails to try to screw over their speaking engagements, it just boggles the mind.

In light of this kind of pervasive harassment, it really bothers me that people treat internet bullying as a minor inconvenience, or something that’s completely apart from “the real world,” when that’s not true at all. The trolls don’t live on their own little island somewhere—they’re right here in the real world with the rest of us. They could be your coworker, your neighbor, your cousin. And I sincerely doubt that anyone who’s that full of hate is limiting their nastiness to online interactions. Not to mention that cyberbullying *frequently* crosses into the victim’s “real life.” Often, that’s the whole point—find out and distribute their personal information, lie about them to their boss or their friends. It’s not something you can walk away from by turning off the computer.