On International Women’s Day, AU Stands For Equality And Against Discrimination In The Name Of Religion

Today is International Women's Day, and one of the themes this year is the Day Without A Woman strike, which organizers of the Women’s March on Washington suggested to support feminist causes. Americans United supported and participated in the Women’s March, and we are proud to stand with women striking today, as well as the women who want to strike but can’t due to economic instability.

At AU, women make approximately 50 percent of our staff, so we recognize that we wouldn’t be the organization we are now without women. As a feminist working for AU, I think all women should support our work advocating for church-state separation and religious freedom.

A day without women is challenging, and a day without church-state separation is a terrifying alternate reality for women. That’s why AU continues fighting against religiously motivated discrimination against women and other marginalized communities.

Under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, consistently fighting the anti-feminist Religious Right, whose support for Trump this election was significant, is now more important than ever because religion should never be used as an excuse to discriminate or restrict the rights of women. 

Especially during Women’s History Month, history should serve a reminder that the Religious Right has consistently worked against the best interests of women.

Consider the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Women’s rights advocates had been pushing for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ensure equality between the sexes since the 1920s. In 1972, a version was approved by the required two-thirds majorities of the U.S. House and Senate. Its wording was simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The ERA was sent to the states for ratification. If three-fourths of the state legislatures had approved it, the amendment would have become part of the Constitution. The amendment quickly won approval in a number of states, but soon a backlash erupted – and it was led by the Religious Right, primarily Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum.  

Schlafly and her Religious Right allies made a number of unsubstantiated claims about the ERA. As late as 1999, Schlafly told CNN, “ERA means abortion funding, means homosexual privileges, means whatever else.”

As a result, the amendment failed to gain passage in the required number of states. When Schlafly died in 2016, her obituaries noted her work to stop the ERA.

Buoyed by that victory, Religious Right groups continued to undermine women’s rights. They used their fundamentalist religious beliefs to curtail reproductive healthcare, justify gender pay gaps, deny women access to certain professions and more.

Some of their policies were less obvious but just as dangerous to women. For example, the Faith-Based Initiative, which President George W. Bush aggressively promoted during his tenure, sends federal money to religious and religiously affiliated institutions that provide social services. Religiously affiliated institutions that have a history of engaging in sex discrimination in employment and fire women who are single and pregnant, for example, became eligible to get federal grants.  

And, of course, most recently we've seen a fight over employment benefits and birth control. The Religious Right supported the ultimately successful efforts to allow employers to use “religious freedom” as an excuse to refuse to provide access to contraceptives through health care plans.

There are many reasons why fundamentalist ideology and women’s rights are in such conflict. The problem today is that these anti-women ideas are finding their way into public policy. The Religious Right continues rejecting women’s advancement and had no problem supporting a misogynist who admitted to sexually assaulting women and getting away with it because he’s famous. These so-called “moral” groups overlooked Trump’s behavior because they wanted a chance to implement their agenda.

Today we should reflect on how far women have come – yet remember how far we have to go. This strike signifies women’s important contributions to society. Today, and every day, we at Americans United will continue fighting against the forces that would use their narrow version of faith to discriminate against women.