Religious Freedom or Systemic Oppression?

The FOX Detroit article, “Doctor refuses treatment of same-sex couple’s baby”, recounts how the daughter of the Contreras, a married lesbian couple, was denied treatment by a paediatrician in Michigan due to the incompatibility of their sexuality with the doctor’s religious beliefs (My Fox Detroit). A discussion of this story and its implications proves to illuminate the systemic, structural and intersecting forms of discrimination that continue to exist in the United States, and around the world.

Cultural logics have historically constructed the idea of homosexuality as abnormal. The idea of the ‘standard story’ has been constructed as exclusively heterosexual. As a result, societal expectations of sexuality are strictly heteronormative. The doctor’s discriminative and unequal treatment of the Contreras because of their sexual orientation is an example of the way that cultural logics of heteronormativity create systemic oppression.

Systemic forms of oppression are legitimized through the implementation of structures. Structural homophobic and racial oppressions have been in existence for centuries. Consider, for example, anti-miscegenation laws, which enforced racial segregation in most states until 1967 (Encyclopedia of Gender and Society). Another example is the illegality of same-sex marriage, which was only recently legalized in some states, and remains illegal in others. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Michigan, although political activists are pushing for change (Freedom to Marry). However, a potential setback is currently being issued as Michigan is now in the process of passing the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”: an act that will serve to increase the structural allowance of homophobic discrimination. The official document states that it is “a bill to limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion”, including “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief” (Michigan Legislature). Although religious freedom is indeed a good thing, if this bill passes, the type of discrimination faced by the Contreras will be not only legally allowed, but also supported by the state. The Act states that the religious motivation does not have to be central to a religious belief system. This vague description opens opportunity for legal discrimination based on biblical passages that forbid, for instance, divorce or eating pork. It’s ridiculous to think that one would be legally supported in refusing to treat someone because the their dietary preferences do not align with the doctors’ religious beliefs. The probability that this Act will be used for these reasons is likely very low. This is because the act of eating pork, or getting a divorce is normalized within society, whereas cultural and societal systems have constructed homosexuality as abnormal. The title of religious freedom acts as a façade to hide the homophobic oppressive features of the Act.

Systemic and structural forms of discrimination and oppression are not limited to white lesbian women. An intersectional analysis of the news article provides a deeper understanding of how forms of oppression intersect, and how popular culture presents and contributes to forms of oppression. Consider how the story might have been different if the identities of the people involved were altered. For instance, suppose the parents were a same-sex male couple: would the female doctor have felt more compelled to treat the child, despite her beliefs, due to the power structures that allow men a higher status in society? If the doctor were male, would oppression be intensified because the couple defies traditional hegemonic masculinities? These types of questions draw on the issues of misogyny and traditional binary concepts of gender, which are both enforced through systemic and structural means.

The topic of race may not seem relevant to this discussion, because whiteness is often seen as an unmarked category. However, by considering the factor that race plays in intersecting oppression, crucial questions arise that need to be addressed. What if the couple were black lesbians? Considering cultural notions of white supremacy, would the story have received so much media attention? Would it have caused so much outrage among the majority population? A discussion of this situation would analyze homophobic oppression through a feminist and anti-racist lens. My analysis is limited due to space constraints, but further exploration into these questions would provide a deeper understanding of the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

What is the answer to solving these systemic, structural, and intersecting forms of oppression? Laverne Cox, a transgender public speaker, offers the idea that the answer is love (Keppler Speakers). As Cornel West beautifully puts it, “justice is what love looks like in public”. Cox explains how she has a lot of love for the people who oppress her, because she recognizes that they also suffer from forms of oppression themselves (Keppler Speakers). If we all learn to possess an accepting and loving attitude, like that of Cox’s, we will be off to a good start to lessening oppression and achieving justice.

Works Cited

“Anti-Miscegenation Laws.” Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Ed. Jodi O’Brien. Vol.
2. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2009. 37. Print.

“Doctor Refuses Treatment of Same-sex Couple’s Baby.” My Fox Detroit. 18 Feb. 2015. Web.

“HOUSE BILL No. 5958.” Michigan Legislature. 4 Dec. 2014

Keppler Speakers. “Laverne Cox on Bullying and Being a Trans Woman of Colour. Online video clip. Web.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1 Jan. 1988. Web.

“Michigan | Freedom to Marry.” Freedom to Marry. Web.


5 thoughts on “Religious Freedom or Systemic Oppression?

  1. As someone who is interested in pursuing a career in medicine, your blog post was very relevant to my interests. The AMA (American Medical Association) states that physicians cannot refuse patients based on their sexual orientation, but can refuse patients based on their personal, religious or moral beliefs. On one hand, the paediatrician is legally allowed to refuse these patients, however her refusal is a clear example of homophobia. It is alarming to think that this discrimination could worsen if the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” passes in Michigan. This situation brings up a plethora of moral and ethical problems, where we need to weigh the intrinsic value of religious freedoms against human rights.

    I really liked how you examined this situation through the lens of intersectionality! It is definitely interesting to think about how the situation might have been different had the people been different. It has been my personal observation based on seeing many similar narratives of discrimination, that often these stories involve discrimination based only on one factor (i.e., sexuality OR gender OR race OR class). What would have happened if one of the mothers was a trans woman? Or what about if the mothers had been less affluent? What would have happened if the mothers were members of a visible minority? All of the above? Would we have seen the same public outcry? Unfortunately, I think not.

    Similarly, what might have happened if the paediatrician was male? Would we have considered this story an example of sexism? Although, there was no mention of sexism as a contributing factor to the discrimination in the news story, it is very likely that sexist societal power structures played just as important a role in this discrimination as homophobia. It is worth thinking about how we often assume that just because someone is part of a less privileged group that they get a ‘pass’ from being considered discriminatory. I believe that women can absolutely show sexism toward other women.

    Luckily, in Ontario (Canadian health care is provincially legislated) it is prohibited to discriminate against based on “grounds of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability”. Although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to freedom of conscience and religion, the less direct the impact on a religious belief, the less likely courts are to find that freedom of religion is infringed. This means that this particular scenario would probably not have happened in Canada. However, in Canada there is no ‘hierarchy’ of rights. Religion is just as protected as gender/ sexual orientation equality. At what point do we draw the line? When do people’s basic rights for gender/ sexual orientation equality usurp others’ rights to discriminate against them based on vague claims about religion?

    Notwithstanding geographic boundaries, this news story is indicative of how prevalent homophobia is in our world today.



  2. I really enjoyed the way you laid out your blog with discussing your background information first and touching on the key terms that apply to this article such as the standard story. This gave me an understanding of the base of your blog making it easier to delve into the analysis. I too thought it was very interesting the way you brought in the aspect of race. Although not brought up in the article, this sparks important questions in terms of the white supremacy mentioned and how if they were a black lesbian couple how completely different the situation may have been. Also the application to gender was very key to your argument. The questions you brought up about whether the situation would be different whether the couple was a gay male couple or if the doctor was a male are very important to consider. Although this was one specific case between a certain doctor and couple, you have applied the case to many other possible intersecting factors.
    One suggestion of where you could have expanded on more if the word count would have allowed, it would have been the religious aspect. I think this is also an extremely important factor in the article. Is it fair that because of a religious by a physician a newborn child is denied care by that physician? If the physician did not know that the couple was lesbian, would the care of the child made any difference?
    Overall your blog was very thought provoking and a very enjoyable read!


  3. Great article! I think you are right to consider the intersectionality of how this situation played out. However, I think that your approach to intersectionality could perhaps have been more productive if you’d used a interlocking understanding of oppression, rather than a strictly additive one. By that I mean that oppressive identities can’t just be stacked on top of one another to presumably create a worse experience for the individual bearing greater oppression. Instead, a truly intersectional approach recognizes that oppression and privilege interact in complex ways so that each individual’s experience of oppression is unique. Of course, I realize that fitting a more complex view into the post would have likely required more space than was permitted.

    Also in response to Emily’s post, I wanted to discuss the legal tradeoff between the rights related to gender and the LGBTQ community versus religious or cultural freedom. One thing I wanted to point out is that in Canada there is actually a hierarchy in terms of the valuation of religious freedom compared with equality rights related to sex. This happens in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms where the sec. 28 “notwithstanding” clause overrides any attempts to discount considerations of sexual equality, including attempts related to the protection of cultural diversity in the sec. 27 multiculturalism clause. Thus, religious freedom could not make Female Genital Mutilation acceptable. Of course, this is still problematic because the language is focused on “sex” as opposed to “gender” and therefore would be more dangerously open to interpretation in protecting the rights of trans or gay individuals. The long-winded point I’m getting at is that, in some ways Canada does a good job of protecting rights, but in other ways might be open to some of the same discriminatory legal systems as the United States.

    Overall, a great read! Good job connecting this issue to structural discrimination upheld by the law. The law is obviously very important to consider given that it is perhaps the most public and official expression of justice in democratic societies. Following the words of Cornell West, this would then mean that just laws create a more loving society. That said, I’m wondering if you think that the law needs to be the foundation for changing disc


  4. sorry…the end of my comment got cut off…. here it is:

    That said, I’m wondering if you think that the law needs to be the foundation for changing discriminatory societal attitudes, or wether there is a more grassroots way to alter existing social norms?


  5. Emily- It would definitely be interesting to see what would have happened if one of the mother was a trans women. However, it is also interesting to consider the fact that many trans individuals do not appear any different than cisgender individuals, as Dan Vena pointed out in lecture. In this case, would one of the mother being trans have any effect on the situation? It’s interesting to see how outward expressions of identity influence oppression. The question you ask of “where do we draw the line?” is an intriguing question that I wonder myself. This brings up the idea of negative vs. positive freedoms. Are restrictions on one groups freedom okay if they allow for another groups expression of freedom? How do these decisions get determined and by whom?

    Lucy- Great insight! The act based on religious freedom did not only result in homophobia, but denied health care to an innocent baby. What if that baby needed immediate life saving surgery and there was no other surgeon available? At what point to we draw the line between religious freedom and the right to health care? Should an act like this be legally supported? (It would through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). This is definitely interesting to think about.

    Meera- I understand what you mean about intersectionality and I totally agree. I tried to express the complexity of intersectional oppression by not only changing the identities of the parents, but also of the doctor. I used the example of the white male who is subject to hegemonic masculinities, to illustrate that all people, despite their privileges have complex positionalities. I would have loved to expanded on this if the word count allowed. Also, in response to your question, I believe that in a democratic society it is up to the citizens to elect officials to implement the laws that they want to see. Considering democracy comes from greek words that mean “people” and “power”, it is up to the people to develop attitudes of acceptance and love, and then to use their democratic power to implement these attitudes into the laws. I realize that this understanding may be somewhat naive, and that an attitude of acceptance definitely will not solve historical structural inequalities, but it is a good place to start.


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