A Minister Gets Sermon on Morality from Legislative Staffers

TFN Insider is pleased to present this guest post from Rev. Beth Ellen Cooper of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church. Rev. Cooper participated in TFN’s clergy gathering earlier this week in support of access to birth control and state funding for family planning. She blogs regularly for the Houston Chronicle at Keep the Faith

Process Matters – Democracy Demands It
Rev. Beth Ellen Cooper

Responsible citizenship demands participation — we’re all reminded of that at voting time. But it can also demand participation outside of electoral processes. On Monday I went to the Austin State House as a woman, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and as a member of the Clergy Advisory Board of the Texas Freedom Network. We held a short service to express our religious and moral conviction that equal and open access to comprehensive reproductive health services is a basic right for all Texas women, and to raise our faith-based conviction that decisions around using birth control are matters of individual conscience, not subject to limitation or coercion by either government or employer.

But it is one thing to pray for justice…and another thing to seek to have it enacted by speaking directly with those who hold the offices that can rectify its lack. So I made arrangements to meet with my legislators, Rep. Steve Toth (R) and Senator Tommy Williams (R) to speak directly to the men who have used their power to curb the autonomy of Texas women.

I’m not sure what I expected. But it wasn’t this.

On entering Rep. Toth’s office, I was greeted by two staffers. I explained that I had an appointment. Rather than ushering me to a quieter place to speak, one staffer sat me down in the waiting area. He took note of my name and role, and I began. I began to explain how I was concerned about reinstating funding cuts to the Texas Women’s Health Program, because Texas is already well above the national average in unplanned pregnancies, and this cut is estimated to result in more than 20,000 more.

I explained how the funding cuts had disproportionately affected those at highest risk — the poor and rural women of Texas — and how unplanned pregnancies show a high correlation with lower educational achievement, higher rates of incarceration, and higher risk of neglect or abuse. This is particularly true when teen mothers don’t have adequate access to family planning services — then both children and mom are at risk.

I explained the glaringly obvious: this legislature has a vested interest in reducing, if not eliminating abortion. The way to reduce or eliminate abortion is to prevent people from getting pregnant in the first place.

I even put it into politi-speak, and gave them financial realities. Unplanned pregnancies already cost the TX Medicaid system upwards of $1.3 Billion a year. Additional unplanned pregnancies mean additional strain in Medicaid costs (have you ever seen a hospital birth invoice?), education costs, and the systemic costs of more people relying on social services. I broke it down. So reinstating a little bit of money now, so women can get exams, be screened for cervical cancer, and assert their basic right to decide when or if to have a child, will save a lot of money later. (I used corresponding hand gestures, to impress upon them the difference, just to be clear. I grew up in the North. One can never be too careful.)

At this point, things got strange. The staffer who was not meeting me looked up and asked, “Do you know anything about the history of birth control?” TRICK QUESTION! My mind screamed. (Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?) I replied that I knew it helped equalize the status of women and allow us greater self-determination. For the next ten minutes, I was subjected to what I can only call a sermon by these staffers. People should practice abstinence if they don’t want children. Sex for its own sake is part of our sinful world. Single people should be celibate. My morality was questionable. And they “just don’t want to pay for other peoples’ sinful behavior.”

“So,” I asked, “You’re telling me that as a mother of two children who doesn’t want any more that I should either take my chances or never have sex with my partner again?”  The staffers looked at each other.

“Well, we’re married. We’ve been married a year and a half, and we’ve never been pregnant. People should take their own responsibility to make sure they don’t,” she replied. (They are, in fact, married, and members of the same church as Rep. Toth. I assumed at the time that she was implying natural birth control.)

“So you’re telling me that in an ABSTINENCE ONLY state, you expect young people and young adults to be adequately educated to know how to do this!?” At this point, all pretense to neutral, compassionate clergyperson had clearly dissipated. My incredulity was on full display, and I cupped my hands in my lap to catch my eyeballs, should they fall out.

We agreed on this: that decisions that have to do with religious conscience and teaching should be left to homes and churches. But what they couldn’t seem to see…or didn’t want to see…is that by attempting to legislate your own religious convictions, you’re violating the exact sovereignty you just asserted. This, after all, is the reason for the separation of church and state. So that the convictions of the few do not dictate the way the many must live.

Okay, so I did have some expectations. I expected professionalism from the office of my representative. I expected to be heard. I expected that notes would be taken, and the feedback communicated in some form, whether or not my representative agrees with me or not. I expected to be treated with respect as a woman with real concerns, as a constituent of his district, and as a clergyperson. No lie. When they registered that I was a female wearing a stole, their demeanor shifted noticeably.

I realized that expectations of those who claim to follow the teachings of the one who said “Love your neighbor” and who gave healing away for free, and who advocated openly for the poor…are sometimes too high.

30 thoughts on “A Minister Gets Sermon on Morality from Legislative Staffers

  1. Shouldn’t the minister be preaching to the legislators, not the other way around? BTW, birth controls PREVENTS abortion and save Texas tax payers MILLIONS and provides better quality of life for low income families & their precious children.

  2. I CANNOT believe we are still asking men for permission to have sex without getting pregnant and being told we are immoral. Thanks to women who continue to speak truth to power.

  3. Beth: Thank you for the post. As I’ve stated before there is a very dark, insidious agenda (& some serious money) lurking in the shadows to which they will never admit. Their stands on women’s reproductive health clearly reflect this. (Do I dare state it? — a large, desperately poor, religiously devout, obedient labor force that will do just about anything for very little money. I wouldn’t say this unless I’d heard it repeatedly in the past. Not a nice thing to say but their actions of late have been making it all too obvious.) OK, I’ll shut up for a while.

  4. As the author of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 1982 General Assembly resolution on religious liberty, church-state separation and reproductive choice, I applaud Rev Cooper’s approach to her lagislator. — Edd Doerr

  5. Beth, a great article. Like the rest of the
    democratic process, the two staffers certainly are no more capable of understanding the assertions in your article,
    or of your visit, than their boss is. This is becasue they’ve already decided that they have a moral obligation to assert their views based on their religious convictions, the teachings of their pastor and their surety that they have all the answers ,on the electorate. Thinking is optional.
    And its likely that there are many many voters who agree with them in the representative’s district. Too bad their beliefs have nothing to do with equal rights for all citizens or observation of citizen’s Constitutional perogatives to live their lives by their own creed, religion or beliefs. They have a responsibility to proselytize their persoanl values, taught to them by a clergyman, to all.
    Its a shame they’re highly unprofessional, unwilling to think for themselves and incapable of transmitting the desires of the voters to their boss. That said, its highly unlikely he has anything but disdain for those who don’t follow his particular righteous interpretation of whats “right” and whats “wrong”. You know they’re right
    Beth. face it.
    How misguided you are to be wanting your own freedom. They know best and are very very connected with higher authority, from whom, they get their instructions. They have a personal avenue to God and can speak for him.
    Think they’re creationists too? uh yeahh !
    Why should their “science” be any different from their politics.?
    Charming. But don’t worry. They’re going to pray for you….probably in a big group so they can shopw each other how forgiving and understanding they are.

  6. You should ask them if they eat pork chops, and then reference them to Lev. 11: 7-8.

  7. Beth–Thanks for an enlightenting article and for your effots. I am trying to get an appointment with Rep. Toth’s office for a group of Retired Teacher’s and can’t even get a call back!

    It is all about education! Thanks for trying to be the educator. Sorry that it fell on deaf ears and minds and hearts that are far from open. Our expectations are indeed too high!

  8. This is why we need to resume Reconstruction in Texas and make sure anti-American elements are kept out of government. We should also look into the unseemly influence certain Christianist sects have over elected officials and terminate their power, by force if necessary. Texas should be fully brought back into the Union.

  9. (((For the next ten minutes, I was subjected to what I can only call a sermon by these staffers. People should practice abstinence if they don’t want children. Sex for its own sake is part of our sinful world. Single people should be celibate. My morality was questionable. And they “just don’t want to pay for other peoples’ sinful behavior.”)))

    Laws and policies should only be based on real needs of real people, NOT on dogmatic assertions based ultimately on religious bigotry. We MUST get people like Rep. Steve Toth and Senator Tommy Williams out of our state legistators, our school boards and out of the U. S. CONGRESS!!!

    I assert, based on my own experience, that every single person who parrots the nonsense quoted above is either a hypocrite or there is something seriously wrong with their sex organs. In any case, they have no business telling those who are truly ethical and have normal sex drives what to do with their bodies!!!

    1. Oh come on, Charles…. Give us the skinny! We really want to know. I believe you’re in good company….

  10. More disturbing than this is that a couple of staffers refused to let a constituent speak to her elected representative. They can hold whatever opinions they want; they’re not even the ones she was there attempting to speak to.

  11. What did Ann Coulter say about Episcopals, something like “it’s barely a church!”

    The authoritarian mind is all about US and THEM. “US” is defined as anything “us” wants to be and THEM is everybody else.

    Reason and rationality are not involved.

  12. One myth the religious right try to perpetuate is the idea that early colonists were much more religious and Bible-fearing than Americans are today. It’s a lie.

    Fact: in the year 1748 in the colony of South Carolina 81% of women were pregnant when they married. Yes, that’s correct, 8 out of 10.

    Fact: 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, slightly more than 60% of all women in the colony of Massachusetts were pregnant when they married. In the counties of Worcester and Franklin, not so far from Boston and the idiocy of the Puritans, it was in excess of 80%.

  13. Yet another reason to believe that the Republicans will soon die out and leave this state to the Democrats. So glad you did that, and thank you!

  14. If these people hate birth control pills so much, why don’t they get equally bent out of shape about condoms or vasectomies?

  15. Maybe it would help if men in office were allowed the experience of delivering a baby they did not want…but, it would be MUCH easier to restructure government requiring50% of any legislating body to be composed of women. There are perfectly good reasons why they think differently, there certainly is no one to blame, but democratic process demands an equal participation of both mindsets. The “Arab Spring” is more about gender equality, than any one example of a nation’s tyrannical leadership.

  16. 1. Unfortunate experience with young staffers.
    2. Although his name is mentioned, nothing here relates to Sen. Williams (who may or may not have been visited and, if so, nothing as to the response received at his office).
    3. One of the major problems today is generalizations from a single anecdote.
    4. I would expect that a clergyperson would be more discriminating and understanding of the attitudes of others with whom she disagrees.
    5. Alas, these words are most likely wasted on this web site.

    1. Actually, this is considerably more than a “single anecdote.” This type of attitude (the religious right) is pervasive in society, especially in the South. If you are attempting to suggest that Rev. Cooper’s experience at the representative’s office is unique, then you simply are not paying attention. And, alas, when you end with a “…wasted on this website” comment, you have identified yourself as one equally, probably more, partisan than those with whom you disagree. By the way, what do you mean by “…more discriminating and understanding of the attitudes of others with whom she disagrees?”

  17. You ALL here in Texas, who have fail to give women credit for making good decisions concerning their bodies listen up. Roe vs Wade which came down from the Supreme Court in the 1970’s showed that the men on that court of the land had great confidence in half the population of the United States. This court also recognized the line in the Consitution that said Separation of Church and State which is guaranteed for all citizens which Texas defies, rejects, and doesn’t acknowledge. Interestingly, my prediction is that in 15-20 yrs from now, Texas will again have to address a giantic crime problem from which none at the top of the legistation will be able to figure out where it came. What you are performing to half the American population as to restricting their freedoms and not addressing at all economic levels, will come back to present a great crime problem. Perhaps those in high places who are interferring with others’ freedoms need to retake the naturalization test which all immgrants have to take which lists all those freedoms ALL American ARE entitled to and GUARANTEED with citizenship.

  18. Thank you for raising your voice, Ellen. I am so sorry you were not received well and that the staffers felt compelled to give you their opinion. The point is that you as a citizen and as a person of faith deserved thoughtful attention from your representative.