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The Women in the Crosshairs of ‘Freedom of Religion’

While much of the weekend’s news cycle was devoted to Bibi-Bidengate, another event in Israel this weekend caught my eye: the protest against sex-segregated buses, which fellow Sisterhood blogger Allison Kaplan Sommer writes about here. In the Sisterhood’s earlier coverage of the issue, Elana Sztokman rightly called the so-called “modesty” policy on public buses deeply discriminatory and sexist. Judy Mandelbaum at Salon’s Broadsheet also has a great round-up of the weekend’s protest and the history of the issue.

There’s a fine line between freedom of religion and the basic democratic principle of separation of religion and state, and it can get particularly thorny in a Jewish state. But at the end of the day, the right to practice one’s religious rituals on public property can’t interfere with others’ right to dignity, equality and basic freedoms. When it does, as is the case with the buses, it’s time for the government to interfere.

We face the problem here, too, as our endless tussle over health-care reform proves. Again and again, issues like abortion and abstinence-only education hold up progress, held hostage by “values” legislators, a code phrase for religiously motivated, socially conservative folks.

A major aspect of the ideological struggle over women’s bodies and sexuality that gets glossed over is the religious one — the fact that powerhouse religious lobbies like the Conference of Catholic Bishops are working to put their moral values and doctrines into civil law.

Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of a real democracy. But somehow when freedom of religion gets invoked, women are always caught in the crossfires. Denying equality for women shouldn’t be the stepping stone on which tolerance for different beliefs is achieved. Bodily autonomy, the ability to avail oneself of public facilities — these are basic rights. Neither government should kowtow to religious elements at women’s expense.

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