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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Women's rights, gay rights and Hobby Lobby
The recent Supreme Court ruling could cause problems for both movements
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Protesters picketed Hobby Lobby locations across the country Saturday.
Credit:Nataraj Hauser

Of the 200 people who turned out to South Towne Mall last weekend to protest Hobby Lobby's refusal to cover select forms of birth control for its employees, three stood out in the crowd: Samantha Burden, 17; Olivia Ravenscroft, 16; and Anna Schmidt, 16.

All members of the Memorial High School Women's Club, they said they grew up thinking that birth control was available to those who needed it. "It's shocking this is still an issue," said Ravenscroft.

It was a sentiment shared by women at the other end of the age spectrum, who were more numerous at the protest. They included Kathy Miner, 63, who held a sign that read, "Can't BELIEVE we're fighting this x@%!! battle AGAIN."

Miner stood with a couple other members of the Raging Grannies: Susan Bickley, 73, and Sheila Plotkin, 76.

"Fifty years ago we were on the street fighting," said Bickley. "We cannot believe we are doing that again."

Protesters picketed Hobby Lobby locations across the country Saturday because of the craft chain's lead role in a controversial challenge to President Barack Obama's health care reform law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 30 that family-owned businesses like Hobby Lobby do not have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage that conflicts with the owners' religious beliefs.

Critics call it a troubling ruling on several scores. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and education center on reproductive health, points out that it "singled out contraception as a health service against which private companies may discriminate."

The Madison protest was organized by the Wisconsin National Organization for Women and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "As far as I know it was the biggest Hobby Lobby protest in the country," says Dayna Long, president of Wisconsin NOW. "So that was thrilling."

As with many local protests around issues of reproductive rights, though, the crowd skewed decidedly older, reinforcing the belief that younger feminists are not stepping up to do the kind of grassroots organizing that was done in the 1970s and 1980s around women's rights. But Long, who at 25 is the youngest president of a NOW chapter in the country, says that criticism is a bit unfair. "I think young feminists engage in feminism differently," she says, pointing to activism conducted online and through social media.

But she acknowledges that bringing younger women and men into the fold is a goal of NOW. "That is an area where we need to be doing more work," she says.

To that end, NOW has helped organize a student group at UW-Madison that will launch this fall. Long herself became active with NOW while a college student in Illinois. She thinks college students have taken for granted the availability of birth control.

Though nine years apart, Long and Schmidt experienced the same wake-up call two years ago. That was when radio host Rush Limbaugh called law student and birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke a "slut" for using contraception. He made his comments as the congressional battle heated up over the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers' health insurance policies cover contraception.

"That's when it became clear to me that things were screwed up," says Long. "For this to be a widespread belief in 2012 was really shocking."

Discretionary sex

The Hobby Lobby ruling -- signaling to many a continued backlash against women's access to reproductive health services -- brought comparisons to the recent court decisions that have advanced gay rights. Why has there been such movement on marriage equality, for instance, while the women's rights movement is still fighting for basic health care?

Alta Charo, UW-Madison professor of law and bioethics and a former adviser to President Obama on women's reproductive health, says the gay rights movement transformed itself over the years from one that demanded sexual freedom to one that demanded what the majority of Americans, particularly conservative ones, already had and admired: a military career, children and a spouse.

Homosexuality is also now widely viewed as something that is intrinsic to one's identity. "So the argument that [gay people] are choosing something that is immoral goes away," says Charo. "But with women and sex, it's still viewed as discretionary."

Conservative America still sees sex without the goal of procreation as recreational and dirty -- "as opposed to something that is intrinsic to our well being," says Charo.

The Hobby Lobby ruling, however, is already bleeding into the movement for gay rights. On Tuesday, gay rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union withdrew their support from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would offer protections to gay and transgender employees and which passed the Senate last November. The groups said the Hobby Lobby ruling could compel private companies to opt out based on religious exemptions.

"If a private company can take its own religious beliefs and say you can't have access to certain health care, it's a hop, skip and a jump to an interpretation that a private company could have religious beliefs that LGBT people are not equal or somehow go against their beliefs and therefore fire them," Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the Washington Post. "We disagree with that trend. The implications of Hobby Lobby are becoming clear."

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