Do Religiously Affiliated Universities Act as a Barrier to Access to Contraception for College Women?

 

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Emily Stephens at Zubik v. Burwell rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court / Photo Credit: Feministcampus.com

WASHINGTON, DC— Emily Stephens is one of many women on college campuses across the United States who is being denied access to contraception by her university. Although Stephens is personally able to access birth control from her parent’s health insurance plan, she notes that not all female students at her Jesuit university have this privilege. The disparity in access to contraception has encouraged her and members of H*yas for Choice, a student group that is not recognized by Georgetown University, to pass out condoms and pamphlets explaining safe sex practices.

H*yas for Choice has identified a barrier many women on religiously affiliated college campuses are facing—contraception is simply not available. Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States, grounds its education and university policies in Jesuit values, according to its mission statement. The university’s religious ideologies have influenced policies banning the sale and distribution of contraceptives on campus, leaving sexually active female students without campus resources for preventing unplanned pregnancies.

“Personally for me getting pregnant at this point in my life would be the worst thing to ever happen to me and I feel like a lot of other women are in that position, and to not have control over whether or not that happens is really, really scary,” Emily Stephens, the organizing coordinator for H*yas for Choice said.

Stephens is not alone in her search for family planning services to avoid unplanned pregnancy. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 62 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States use at least one form of contraception and 99 percent of women aged 15-24 who have engaged in sexual intercourse have used contraception at least once. On college campuses, 40 percent of women report specifically using prescribed oral contraceptives as their main means for preventing unwanted pregnancy, according to the American College Health Association, an advocacy and research organization focused on the health of college students.

 

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Infographic created by Emma Thomas

 

Despite the high demand and use of contraception among college-aged women, many female students like Stephens are running into barriers accessing contraception while at college.

In the case of two private Washington, D.C. universities– Catholic University of America and Georgetown University– the religious affiliations of the institutions are a significant factor into their students’ lack of accessibility to contraception.

At both Georgetown University and Catholic University of America, the sale of condoms is prohibited whether the university owns the campus store or it is rented by a third party. Student health centers, resident assistants and recognized student groups are not permitted to distribute condoms on campus. Stephens says the closest place Georgetown students can purchase condoms is at a nearby CVS about a mile walk from the front gates of the university.

Every day, rain or shine, H*yas for Choice members sit behind a table and pass out condoms and sexual health information in Georgetown University’s Red Square, the designated free speech area on campus, according to Stephens. As the organizing coordinator of the club, Stephens has been leading the organization’s efforts to pressure university administration to expand free speech areas on campus and to permit third-party campus stores to sell condoms. Her long term goals for the organization are for students to be able to obtain birth control from the student health center for pregnancy prevention purposes, and for H*yas for Choice to become a recognized club. The organization’s most recent success was getting permission from the university to allow members to tape envelopes filled with condoms to their personal dormitory doors, so that all students had access to free condoms.

While some students like Stephens and other H*yas for Choice members oppose the religious mandates creating barriers to accessing contraception, other students say they are in support of the policies. “I came to this school knowing it had a lot of Catholic identity and it’s right that we are following that tradition of a Catholic school to not support any contraception or abortion,” Michael Khan, president of Georgetown University’s Right To Life, a pro-life student club, said.

Khan is a sophomore at Georgetown University and grew up passionate about the right-to-life movement. He joined Right to Life his freshman year to help plan the university’s national Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, which Khan says is the largest pro-life conference in the country. “We don’t really take a perspective on contraception,” Khan said. “We just have abortion, death penalty, and euthanasia, and we obviously oppose all those.” He says Georgetown’s Jesuit values are a foundational component of the education at the university, which is why Right to Life supports the school’s anti-contraception policy.

Georgetown University declined to comment on its anti-contraception policy for this story, but according to the Student Health Services section of their website, student health insurance plans provided by the university do not cover contraceptive services for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.

“The organization that sponsors your health plan has certified that it qualifies for a temporary enforcement safe harbor with respect to the Federal requirement to cover contraceptive services without cost sharing. Coverage under your health plan will not include coverage of contraceptive services.” (Retrieved from Georgetown University’s Student Health Services website under the frequently asked questions page).

The one exception to this policy is if birth control medication is requested “for treatment of a covered sickness.” Stephens says this exception allows women on campus to get prescriptions for birth control without the university breaking their religious obligations to the Catholic Church. “If you want it for contraceptive purposes you have to lie and want it for acne control or period control,” Stephens said. “So it is possible. But only if you are willing to lie to get it.”

Khan said this exception is not the only instance where the university is lenient in regards to the Catholic faith, mentioning that the university is allowing a recognized student group to bring Planned Parenthood president Cecil Richards to campus to speak. “She’s using university resources and even though she’s not getting a direct fee— there’s a lot of costs involved coming from the university,” Khan said.

According to Khan, Right to Life is organizing a protest for the day of Cecil Richards’ speech. “We’re continuing to work to make sure Georgetown emphasizes pro-life because I think these last few years they haven’t emphasized as much,” Khan said. Sometimes even Georgetown sends conflicting messages. We’re a Catholic school, but by most accounts we’re the most progressive Catholic school.”

The policy exception allowing Georgetown University students to access contraception for medical reasons originates from a mandate by the Affordable Care Act, which legally requires that all employer-provided insurance plans include complete coverage for contraception. For universities, this federal law applies to insurance plans for both staff and students.

Churches, places of worship and non-profit religious organizations—including universities and hospitals—can be exempt from this contraception mandate for religious opposition to the use of contraception. To be exempt, these religiously affiliated entities must explain why they object to the mandate in a two-page form.

Stephens says Georgetown University prides itself in founding its teaching in Jesuit values, including “care for the whole person.” “And if you look at care for the whole person, part of the whole person is your reproductive organs and what they need to make choices for themselves and your own happiness,” Stephens said. “I think there’s a really strong case to be made that they need to value the sexual health of their students over this small aspect of Catholic theology.”

Catholic University takes an arguably stricter approach than Georgetown University in restricting access to contraception. Unlike Georgetown University, employees of Catholic University are not entitled to health insurance that covers contraception use, and students are unable to request birth control prescriptions for medical reasons.

In addition, Catholic University has had strong involvement in efforts by religiously affiliated universities to oppose the two-page exemption form requirement. According to Robert Tuttle, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, their argument is that submitting the exemption form is an undue burden to their institutions.

Currently, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing a case addressing this opposition in Zubik v. Burwell. The case against the Affordable Care Act mandate is a compilation of seven different cases, but is being led by Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Church at the Diocese of Pittsburg. Geneva College and East Texas Baptist University are also plaintiffs in the case. The defendant is Syliva Burwell, the secretary of the United States Health and Services.

“The government says there is no statutory burden on their religious exercise by simply requiring them to turn in a piece of paper,” Tuttle said. He says the main question will be whether or not the plaintiffs can successfully articulate a distinction between the forms being an undue burden and their moral opposition to contraception, when asking for this exemption. “If they frame it as wanting to block an individual’s legally protected conduct, then it is very difficult to sustain that as a legitimate argument,” he said. “If this is the argument that the religious lawyers make, there is a good chance it’ll be a five to three vote in favor of the government.”

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In lieu of comment for this story, Catholic University administration provided a written statement of an oral testimony university president John Garvey gave on February 12, 2016 to the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Garvey testified on behalf of Catholic University’s opposition to being required to submit the two-page exemption form. “The rule forces us to deny in one part of our operation what we affirm in another. We teach our students in our classes, in our sacraments and in the activities of Student Life and Campus Ministry that sterilization, contraception and abortion are wrong,” Garvey said in his testimony to the Congressional committee. “The rule requires our Human Resources staff to offer these very services to our students at no additional cost, as part of our health insurance program. It makes hypocrites of us all, in the most important lessons we teach.”

Katie Sharma, a senior studying political science and Islamic world studies at Catholic University of America, said she understands the administration’s position. “It’s not that you can’t use contraception, it’s that they aren’t willing to pay for it because part of the Catholic faith is that sex should be between a man and a woman, but the biggest reason is that the point of sex is to have kids,” Sharma said. “Basically the answer our university always gives is like, what you want to do with your life isn’t our business, but you can’t expect us to pay for something that is morally against our teachings.”

Sharma has been vocal on campus about her opposition to contraception and support for Catholic University’s policies stating that the university will not pay for students’ contraception as it morally conflicts with the Catholic values of the institution. “Because Catholic University is the only university in the world that was chartered by the Vatican and by the Pope, they have to follow Catholic teachings very closely,” Sharma said. “You did choose to come to the Catholic University of America, so you kind of have to understand that with that, and with the affiliation with the Vatican, is going to come certain teachings.”

Unlike Georgetown University, Sharma says there is a not a strong presence of pro-choice advocates on Catholic University’s campus. To her knowledge there are no student groups campaigning the university to change its anti-contraception policies and there are not efforts to find unofficial ways to distribute contraception the way H*yas for Choice has done.

Sharma says students’ health should be a priority of universities, but sexual health—particularly access and use of contraception and abortion—is not a critical element of wellbeing. “Any issue to do with health should be funded if its necessary and not against the Catholic teachings,” Sharma said. She does not believe Catholic University, or any private university—religiously affiliated or not—should be responsible or required to provide funding for contraception or for insurance plans that include coverage for contraception. “Especially with religious and private universities it should be up to their decision. They’re their own institutions and every student makes a conscious decision to go to a private or religiously affiliated university,” she said.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Zubik v. Burwell on March 23, 2016. In an atypical move, the Court asked the plaintiff and the defendant to file supplemental briefs addressing whether or not and how employees whose companies have religious exemptions could receive contraception coverage from third-party insurance companies in a way that does not involve the employer. On April 20, 2016 responses to the supplemental briefs were due. The Court will have to come to a decision on the case before summer recess begins at the end of June.

Do Religiously Affiliated Universities Act as a Barrier to Access to Contraception for College Women?

WASHINGTON, DC— Emily Stephens is one of many women on college campuses across the United States who is being denied access to contraception by her university. While Stephens is personally able to access birth control from her parent’s health insurance plan, she notes that not all female students at her Jesuit university have this privilege. The disparity in access to contraception has encouraged her and members of H*yas for Choice, an unrecognized student group that advocates for reproductive justice at Georgetown University, to unofficially pass out condoms and pamphlets explaining safe sex practices.

H*yas for Choice has identified a barrier many women on religiously affiliated college campuses are facing—contraception is simply not available. Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States, founds its education and university policies in Jesuit values, according to its mission statement. The university’s religious ideologies have influenced policies banning the sale and distribution of contraceptives on campus, leaving sexually active female students without campus resources for preventing unplanned pregnancies.

“Personally for me getting pregnant at this point in my life would be the worst thing to ever happen to me and I feel like a lot of other women are in that position, and to not have control over whether or not that happens is really, really scary,” Emily Stephens, the organizing coordinator for H*yas for Choice said.

Stephens is not alone in her search for family planning services to avoid unplanned pregnancy. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 62 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States use at least one form of contraception and 99 percent of women aged 15-24 who have engaged in sexual intercourse have used contraception at least once. On college campuses, 40 percent of women report specifically using prescribed oral contraceptives as their main means for preventing unwanted pregnancy, according to the American College Health Association.

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Despite the high demand and use of contraception among college-aged women, many female students like Stephens are running into barriers accessing contraception while at school.

In the case of two private Washington, D.C. universities– Catholic University of America and Georgetown University– the religious affiliations of the institutions are a significant factor in their students’ lack of accessibility to contraception.

At both Georgetown University and Catholic University of America, the sale of condoms is prohibited whether or not the university owns the store on campus or it is rented to a third party. Student health centers, resident assistants and recognized student groups are not permitted to distribute condoms on campus. Stephens says the closest place Georgetown students can purchase condoms is at a nearby CVS about a mile walk from the front gates of the university.

While some students like Stephens and other H*yas for Choice members outspokenly oppose the religious mandates creating barriers to accessing contraception, other students say they are in support of the policies. “I came to this school knowing it had a lot of Catholic identity and it’s right that we are following that tradition of a Catholic school to not support any contraception or abortion,” Michael Khan, president of Georgetown University’ Right To Life club said. “

Khan is a sophomore at Georgetown University and grew up passionate about the right to life movement. He joined Right to Life his freshman year to help plan the university’s national Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, which Khan says is the largest pro-life conference in the country. “We don’t really take a perspective on contraception,” Khan said, in reference to Right to Life. “We just have abortion, death penalty, and euthanasia, and we obviously oppose all those.” He says Georgetown’s Jesuit values are a foundational component of the education at the university, which is why Right to Life supports the school’s anti-contraception mandate.

Georgetown University declined to comment on its anti-contraception policy, but according to the Student Health Services section of their website, student health insurance plans provided by the university do not cover contraceptive services for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.

“The organization that sponsors your health plan has certified that it qualifies for a temporary enforcement safe harbor with respect to the Federal requirement to cover contraceptive services without cost sharing. Coverage under your health plan will not include coverage of contraceptive services.” (Retrieved from Georgetown University’s Student Health Services website under the frequently asked questions page).

The one exception to this policy is if birth control medication is requested “for treatment of a covered sickness.” Stephens says this exception allows women on campus to get prescriptions for birth control without the university breaking their religious obligations to the Catholic Church. “If you want it for contraceptive purposes you have to lie and want it for acne control or period control,” Stephens said. “So it is possible. But only if you are willing to lie to get it.”

Khan argues this exception is not the only instance where the university is lenient in regards to the Catholic faith, mentioning that the university is allowing a recognized student group to bring Planned Parenthood president, Cecil Richards to campus to speak. “She’s using university resources and even though she’s not getting a direct fee— there’s a lot of costs involved coming from the university,” Khan said. “We’re continuing to work to make sure Georgetown emphasizes pro-life because I think these last few years they haven’t emphasized as much. Sometimes even Georgetown sends conflicting messages. We’re a Catholic school but by most accounts we’re the most progressive Catholic school.”

However, this exception to the policy actually originates from the Affordable Care Act, which legally requires that all employer-provided insurance plans to include complete coverage for contraception. For universities, this federal law applies to insurance plans for both staff and students.

Stephens says Georgetown University prides itself in founding its teaching in Jesuit values, including “care for the whole person.” “Part of the whole person is your reproductive organs,” Stephens said, adding that Georgetown’s values need to be applied to all aspects of an individual’s wellbeing, including their sexual health.

Catholic University takes an arguably stricter approach than Georgetown University in restricting access to contraception. In lieu of comment for this story, Catholic University administration provided a written statement of an oral testimony university president John Garvey gave on February 12, 2016 to the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Garvey testified on behalf of Catholic University’s disagreement with the Affordable Care Act requiring institutions to provide insurance for students and employees that covers the cost of contraception.

“The rule forces us to deny in one part of our operation what we affirm in another. We teach our students in our classes, in our sacraments, and in the activities of Student Life and Campus Ministry that sterilization, contraception, and abortion are wrong,” Garvey said in his testimony to the congressional committee. “The rule requires our Human Resources staff to offer these very services to our students at no additional cost, as part of our health insurance program. It makes hypocrites of us all, in the most important lessons we teach.”

Katie Sharma, senior at Catholic University of America, said she understands the administration’s position. “It’s not that you can’t use contraception, it’s that they aren’t willing to pay for it because part of the Catholic faith is that sex should be between a man and a woman, but the biggest reason is that the point of sex is to have kids,” Katie Sharma, a student at Catholic University of America said. “Basically the answer our university always gives is like, what you want to do with your life isn’t our business, but you can’t expect us to pay for something that is morally against our teachings.”

Sharma has been vocal on campus about her opposition to contraception and support for Catholic University’s policies stating that the university will not pay for students’ contraception as it morally conflicts with the Catholic values of the institution.

Click here to listen to Katie Sharma explain why, in her opinion, Catholic University should not pay for students’ contraception. 

“Because Catholic University is the only university in the world that was chartered by the Vatican and by the Pope, they have to follow Catholic teachings very closely,” Sharma said. “You did choose to come to the Catholic University of America, so you kind of have to understand that with that, and with the affiliation with the Vatican, is going to come certain teachings.” She says students’ health should be a priority of universities, but sexual health—particularly access and use of contraception and abortion—is not a critical element of wellbeing.

“Any issue to do with health should be funded if it’s necessary and not against the Catholic teachings,” Sharma said. She does not believe Catholic University, or any private university—religiously affiliated or not—should be responsible or required to provide funding for contraception or for insurance plans that include coverage for contraception. “Especially with religious and private universities it should be up to their decision. They’re their own institutions and every student makes a conscious decision to go to a private or religiously affiliated university,” she said.

 

College Reproductive Rights Advocates Say They’re “Silenced” by Religious Mandates

WASHINGTON, D.C.—– Young Georgetown University activists stand behind a table covered with bowls of condoms, pamphlets about safe sex and information on reproductive rights. The table sits behind the large bars of the front gate, separating the activists from the student body.

For H*yas for Choice, an unrecognized student group advocating for reproductive justice at Georgetown University, this restricted speech is a weekly reality, according to Emily Stephens, the group’s organizing coordinator.

H*yas for Choice distributes condoms to students daily, passes out pamphlets with reproductive health information and sexual assault resources and brings speakers to campus. However, the club is not recognized by Georgetown University as a student organization due to the school’s religious affiliation. Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States and the school’s values and mission are founded on Jesuit faith, according to the university website. As a Jesuit institution, Georgetown University prohibits the sale or distribution of contraceptives on campus grounds and does not recognize any student group that supports contraception or abortion.

“If they were seriously into being more progressive or providing more services for students I think there’s definitely things they could do within the confines of being a Jesuit institution,” Stephens said. “They could allow the unaffiliated stores on campus to sell contraceptives, they could allow tabling as a form of speech, they could give us other benefits.”

Regardless if a group is recognized, groups are only permitted to table in designated ‘free speech zones’ on campus. There are three main zones—the student center, Copley Lawn and Red Square, an outdoor square on campus. “I think it’s fairly ridiculous that there’s zones where you can say whatever you want, but other zones where you can’t,” Stephens said.

Yet Stephens said even when H*yas for Choice follows policy and tables in designated free speech zones, they are often arbitrarily forced to move without any specific information about how they are violating policy. This constant battle with administration has led them to be told to table behind the iron bars of the campus gates on multiple occasions.

In September 2014, a ceremony was held to award Cardinal Wuerl with an honorary degree from the university. According to Stephens, H*yas for Choice decided to protest the event and the cardinal’s vocal opposition to abortion by setting up a table demonstration outside the ceremony. Campus police forced them to move their table outside the front university gates, she says. To Stephens, the most surprising and frustrating part was when five minutes after they relocated the same officer forced them to move again, this time behind a long fence.

“It was a really great visual image at least that we were literally behind a fence where no one could see us,” Stephens said. “We got great PR from it and it demonstrated the arbitrary nature of the university’s policy, because if we’re not where they want us to be, they’ll just move us regardless of the policies they’ve talked about in the past.”

Free speech is an important right to Stephens. She first discovered H*yas for Choice as a freshman when she attended a town hall on the university’s free speech policies. H*yas for Choice had a large presence at the meeting and several members spoke and publically criticized the policy. Afterwards Stephens approached the members and said she was interested in their mission. Stephens—who is studying science technology and international affairs—has an invested interest in reproductive rights and its role in global health. Upon graduation she hopes to work on health systems in developing countries so they have access to modern day technologies to help prevent communicable diseases such as HIV and malaria. “We have really, really good treatments but we aren’t getting them to countries that don’t have their own health systems,” Stephens said. “I really want to work on helping to build up those health systems so those countries can provide their citizens with those services for themselves.”

After introducing herself to H*yas for Choice members, she began tabling for them and was elected club secretary the following year. Now as a junior and the organizing coordinator, Stephens is leading H*yas for Choice in a campus-wide campaign to urge the university to recognize tabling as a form of speech so students can table anywhere on campus. Stephens said tabling is an important form of free speech and one that students on many college campuses use to communicate their organization’s message. She said she rarely experiences backlash from students and faculty when she is tabling, but rather guests, administration and campus police are the ones upset.

“There are things they can do and I think they are choosing not to do those things and I think it’s sending a pretty clear message that they aren’t in interested in actively moving forward on reproductive rights on campus,” Stephens said.

Stephens said in the short term, she would like to see tabling recognized as a form of speech, students to be able to obtain birth control from the student health center for pregnancy prevention purposes, and for the university to permit on-campus stores that are contracted out and not university-funded to sell condoms. Currently, university policy prohibits all businesses on campus from selling condoms, but permits the sale of lubricants and pregnancy tests. “Those are all achievable things,” Stephens said.

In the long term, Stephens said her goals are for H*yas for Choice to be a recognized and university-funded club, and for students to have access to free condoms at the student health center; although she is not too optimistic.

“At this point I think it’s a lost cause. The only way Hoyas for Choice will become re-recognized is if Georgetown gives up its Jesuit identity, which it’s never going to do,” Stephens said.

House Debates President Obama’s Order to Close Guantanamo Bay

WASHINGTON— President Obama only has 300 days remaining to fulfill his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay, but Congress cannot agree on whether to help achieve this goal.

Members of the U.S. Committee on House Foreign Affairs voiced both opposition and support for the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to close Guantanamo Bay Tuesday morning during the first formal hearing on closing the detention facility.

Republican committee members referenced European nations’ longstanding support for closing Guantanamo prison, but said that in light of this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, they will likely reconsider their support. Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce [R-CA] opened the hearing with a statement vehemently opposing the closure of the detention center.

“President Obama`s race to empty the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is on,” Royce said. “President Obama remains determined to push out as many terrorists as he can to other countries.”

 

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House Committee of Foreign Affairs meets for the first formal congressional hearing on the closure of Guantanamo Bay in the Rayburn House Building. Photo Credit: Emma Thomas

 

On January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama was sworn into office, he signed an executive order requiring Guantanamo Bay’s detention facilities be closed. Seven years later progress has been made to transfer the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to other countries, although 91 prisoners remain, according to hearing witness Paul Lewis, who is the special envoy for Guantanamo detention closure for the U.S. Department of Defense.

However, compared to the 900 prisoners who used to reside in Guantanamo Bay, Lewis said there has been significant progress to transfer and release prisoners. According to Lewis, President George W. Bush’s administration transferred 500 prisoners and President Obama’s administration has transferred another 144 inmates. Of the 91 prisoners who remain, 36 are eligible for transfer, 45 are being reviewed for release and transfer, and only 10 are currently serving a criminal sentence. Thus, in an overwhelming number of instances, many of the detainees are never charged and found to be innocent. In Lewis’ opinion, the call to close Guantanamo Bay is an ongoing bipartisan effort.

“Senior figures across the political spectrum have also made clear that Guantanamo poses profound risks to our national security and should be closed,” Lewis said in his opening statement. “This conclusion, shared by two Presidents, four former Secretaries of Defense, and eight former Secretaries of State demonstrates bipartisan support for Guantanamo closure at the highest level of our national security leadership.”

In order to close the detention facilities, prisoners must be transferred to maximum-security prisons in other countries. According to Royce, some of the countries that have offered to help, such as Ghana and Uruguay, do not have the security measures or intelligence to secure these prisoners.

“We know many of the recipient countries don’t have the desire or commitment or ability to monitor these dangerous individuals and prevent them from returning to the battlefield,” Royce said. Royce expressed concerned detainees who are a “true threat” will be cleared for release and will then return to the ISIS battlefield due to the country’s lack of intelligence. Royce reported in his opening statement that according to the report from the Department of Defense, approximately 30 percent of Guantanamo Bay detainees who are released are confirmed or suspected to have returned to fighting.

“If the administration was spending as much time working to capture and detain ISIS fighters as it was trying to close down a perfectly good facility at Guantanamo Bay, we`d be more secure,” Royce said.

Ranking committee member Rep. Elliot Engle [D-NY] argued the national security and foreign policy costs of closing the detention facilities outweighs the costs of leaving the prison open.

“Beyond the dollars-and-cents, beyond our safety here at home, we need to consider the harm Gitmo has inflicted on our security interests around the world, and just as importantly, on our values,” Engle said. “For terrorists seeking to recruit more fighters into their ranks, the Guantanamo facility is a gift that keeps on giving.”

Engle referred to the way terrorist groups, including ISIS, are mocking Guantanamo Bay and using it as a form of propaganda to recruit members by filming videos of them murdering prisoners dressed in orange jumpsuits. The orange jumpsuits, Engle says, are symbolic of the dress prisoners in Guantanamo Bay wear.

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Before the hearing began, three women from the CODE PINK campaign held signs in support of closing Guantanamo Bay prison. Photo Credit: Emma Thomas

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher [R-CA] pushed aside the fact terrorist groups use Guantanamo as a propaganda tool, and argued there were more significant issues at play. He said he was “disgusted” to hear that Lewis’ report cites that ex-Guantanamo prisoners have later killed Americans.

“This idea that the people of the world, they’re so upset with us, that it’s a recruiting vehicle, that we’ve kept terrorists who murder innocent people in Gitmo, well, you know what? I think the bigger recruiting tool today is when our government, especially at this administration, is perceived as being weak,” Rohrabacher said. Rohrbacher asked Lewis in a line of questioning how many Americans have died as a result of transferring Guatanamo prisoners. Lewis said he could elaborate further in a classified setting.

Some Democrats still argue that the detention facility was created out of “fear” and “political expediency,” according to Engle, and closing the prison will better protect the United States’ security interests.

“The only justification for keeping the prison open is fear.  Fear of violent extremism.  Fear that our justice system or prison system cannot get the job done, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  And fear is precisely what our enemies want to instill in us.  I don’t want them to win,” Engle concluded.

House Debates President Obama’s Order to Close Guantanamo Bay

WASHINGTON— President Obama only has three hundred remaining days to fulfill his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay, and Congress is not helping to achieve his goal.

Members of the U.S. Committee on House Foreign Affairs voiced both opposition and support for the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to close Guantanamo Bay Tuesday morning during the first formal hearing on closing the detention facility.

Republican committee members said in light of this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, European countries in favor of Guantanamo prison closing will reconsider. Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce [R-CA] opened the hearing with a statement vehemently opposing the closure of the detention center.

“President Obama’s race to empty the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is on,” Royce said. “President Obama remains determined to push out as many terrorists as he can to other countries.”

 

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House Committee of Foreign Affairs meets for the first formal congressional hearing on the closure of Guantanamo Bay in the Rayburn House building.

 

On January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama was sworn into office, he signed an executive order requiring Guantanamo Bay’s detention facilities be closed. Seven years later progress has been made to transfer the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to other countries, although 91 prisoners remain, according to hearing witness Paul Lewis who is the special envoy for Guantanamo detention closure for the U.S. Department of Defense.

However, compared to the 900 prisoners who used to reside in Guantanamo Bay, Lewis said there has been significant progress to transfer and release prisoners. According to Lewis, President George W. Bush’s administration transferred 500 prisoners and President Obama’s administration has transferred another 144 inmates. Of the 91 prisoners who remain, 36 are eligible for transfer, 45 are being reviewed for release and transfer, and only 10 are currently serving a criminal sentence. In Lewis’ opinion, the call to close Guantanamo Bay is an ongoing bipartisan effort.

“Senior figures across the political spectrum have also made clear that Guantanamo poses profound risks to our national security and should be closed,” Lewis said in his opening statement. “This conclusion, shared by two Presidents, four former Secretaries of Defense, and eight former Secretaries of State demonstrates bipartisan support for Guantanamo closure at the highest level of our national security leadership.”

In order to close the detention facilities, prisoners must be transferred to maximum-security prisons in other countries. According to Royce, some of the countries that have offered to help, such as Ghana and Uruguay, do not have the security measures or intelligence to secure these prisoners.

“We know many of the recipient countries don’t have the desire or commitment or ability to monitor these dangerous individuals and prevent them from returning to the battlefield,” Royce said. Royce is concerned detainees who are a “true threat” will be cleared for release and will then return to the ISIS battlefield due to the country’s lack of intelligence. Royce reported in his opening statement that approximately 30 percent of released Guantanamo Bay detainees are confirmed or suspected to have returned to fighting.

“If the administration was spending as much time working to capture and detain ISIS fighters as it was trying to close down a perfectly good facility at Guantanamo Bay, we`d be more secure,” Royce said.

Ranking committee member Rep. Elliot Engle [D-NY] disagreed with Royce and argued the national security and foreign policy costs of closing the detention facilities outweighs the costs of leaving the prison open.

“Beyond the dollars-and-cents, beyond our safety here at home, we need to consider the harm Gitmo has inflicted on our security interests around the world, and just as importantly, on our values,” Engle said. “For terrorists seeking to recruit more fighters into their ranks, the Guantanamo facility is a gift that keeps on giving.”

Engle referred to the way terrorist groups, including ISIS, are mocking Guantanamo Bay and using it as a form of propaganda to recruit members by filming videos of them murdering prisoners dressed in orange jumpsuits. The orange jumpsuits, Engle says, are symbolic of the dress prisoners in Guantanamo Bay wear.

 

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Before the hearing began, three women from the CODE PINK campaign hold signs in support of closing Guantanamo Bay prison. 

 

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher [R-CA] pushed aside the fact terrorist groups use Guantanamo as a propaganda tool, and argued there were more significant issues at play. He said he was “disgusted” to hear that Lewis’ report cites that ex-Guantanamo prisoners have later killed Americans.

“This idea that the people of the world, they’re so upset with us, that it’s a recruiting vehicle, that we’ve kept terrorists who murder innocent people in Gitmo, well, you know what? I think the bigger recruiting tool today is when our government, especially at this administration, is perceived as being weak,” Rohrabacher said. Rohrbacher asked Lewis in a line of questioning how many Americans have died as a result of transferring Guatanamo prisoners. Lewis said he could elaborate further in a classified setting.

 

Democrats still argue that the detention facility was created out of “fear” and “political expediency,” according to Engle, and closing the prison will better protect the United States’ security interests.

“The only justification for keeping the prison open is fear.  Fear of violent extremism.  Fear that our justice system or prison system cannot get the job done, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  And fear is precisely what our enemies want to instill in us.  I don’t want them to win,” Engle concluded.

 

Reproductive Rights Advocates Silenced by Religious Mandates

WASHINGTON, D.C.—– Young Georgetown University activists stand behind a table covered with bowls of condoms, pamphlets about safe sex and information on reproductive rights. The table sits behind the large bars of the front gate, separating the activists from the student body and ironically symbolizing the university’s efforts to silence them.

For H*yas for Choice, an unrecognized student group advocating for reproductive justice at Georgetown University, this restricted speech is a weekly reality, according to Emily Stephens, the group’s organizing coordinator.

H*yas for Choice distributes condoms to students daily, passes out pamphlets with reproductive health information and sexual assault resources and brings speakers to campus. However, the club is unrecognized by Georgetown University due to the school’s religious identity. Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States and the school’s values and mission are founded on Jesuit faith, according to the university website. As a Jesuit institution, Georgetown University prohibits the sale or distribution of contraceptives on campus grounds and does not recognize any student group that vocally supports contraception or abortion.

“If they were seriously into being more progressive or providing more services for students I think there’s definitely things they could do within the confines of being a Jesuit institution,” Stephens said. “They could allow the unaffiliated stores on campus to sell contraceptives, they could allow tabling as a form of speech, they could give us other benefits.”

Regardless if a group is recognized, groups are only permitted to table in designated ‘free speech zones’ on campus. There are three main zones—the student center, Copley Lawn and Red Square, an outdoor square on campus. “I think it’s fairly ridiculous that there’s zones where you can say whatever you want, but other zones where you can’t,” Stephens said.

Yet Stephens said even when H*yas for Choice follows policy and tables in designated free speech zones, they are often arbitrarily forced to move without any specific information about how they are violating policy. This constant battle with administration has led them to be told to table behind the iron bars of the campus gates on multiple occasions.

 

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H*yas for Choice activists forced to table behind university fencing in September 2014. Photo published by The Hoya, a student-run newspaper.

 

In September 2014, a ceremony was held to award Cardinal Wuerl with an honorary degree from the university. According to Stephens, H*yas for Choice decided to protest the event and the cardinal’s vocal opposition to abortion by setting up a table demonstration outside the ceremony. Campus police forced them to move their table outside the front university gates. To Stephens, the most surprising and frustrating part was when five minutes after they relocated the same officer forced them to move again, this time behind a long fence.

“It was a really great visual image at least that we were literally behind a fence where no one could see us,” Stephens said. “We got great PR from it and it demonstrated the arbitrary nature of the university’s policy, because if we’re not where they want us to be, they’ll just move us regardless of the policies they’ve talked about in the past.”

Free speech is an important right to Stephens. She first discovered H*yas for Choice as a freshman when she attended a town hall on the university’s free speech policies. H*yas for Choice had a large presence at the meeting and several members spoke and publically criticized the policy. Afterwards Stephens approached the members and said she was interested in their mission. Stephens, who is studying science technology and international affairs, has an invested interest in reproductive rights and its role in global health. Upon graduation she hopes to work on health systems in developing countries so they have access to modern day technologies to help prevent communicable dieses such as HIV and malaria.

After introducing herself to H*yas for Choice members, she began tabling for them and was elected club secretary the following year. Now as a junior and the organizing coordinator, Stephens is leading H*yas for Choice in a campus-wide campaign to urge the university to recognize tabling as a form of speech so students can table anywhere on campus. Stephens said tabling is an important form of free speech and one that students on many college campuses use to communicate their organization’s message.

“There are things they can do and I think they are choosing not to do those things and I think it’s sending a pretty clear message that they aren’t in interested in actively moving forward on reproductive rights on campus,” Stephens said.

Stephens said in the short term, she would like to see tabling recognized as a form of speech, students to be able to obtain birth control from the student health center for pregnancy prevention purposes, and for the university to permit on-campus stores that are contracted out and not university-funded to sell condoms. Currently, university policy prohibits all businesses on campus from selling condoms, but permits the sale of lubricants and pregnancy tests. “Those are all achievable things,” Stephens said in response to her short-term goals.

In the long term, Stephens said her goals are for H*yas for Choice to be a recognized and university-funded club, and for student to have access to free condoms at the student health center; although she is not too optimistic.

“At this point I think it’s a lost cause. The only way Hoyas for Choice will become re-recognized is if Georgetown gives up its Jesuit identity which it’s never going to do,” Stephens said.

The Sin of Slavery

WASHINGTON—- Reverend Jim Wallis was shocked to be told as a teenager the best advice an African American mother could give her children was to hide from a policeman if they were in need of help. In his white, Christian home his mother had always preached the opposite— telling her children to seek a police station if they were ever lost. Fifty years later in 2016 Wallis said he is no longer surprised by the advice, but is angry it is still relevant today.

“What does it mean to have to tell your son, and your daughter too, that they can’t trust the law enforcement in their own community,” Wallis asked the audience.

Wallis, who is a political activist, preacher, author, and spiritual advisor to President Obama, is criticizing the American political system’s consciousness of white privilege, racism and what he calls America’s original sin: slavery. His criticism is accompanied by a call to action to end racial injustice in his newly released book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Wallis is also the founder of Sojourners, a Christian magazine bridging faith and social justice issues.

Wallis, who has published 12 other books and several news columns, said he decided to write America’s Original Sin after Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012.

“The idol of white supremacy separates white Christians from God,” Wallis said during an author talk on Saturday at Politics and Prose, a bookstore D.C., “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents might fear less for their children’s safety.

FullSizeRender (2)
Photo Credit: Emma Thomas

Wallis said America’s Original Sin draws the connection of theology to policy through analyzing what he calls “the normality of whiteness in America.” Wallis discussed slavery in America and argued that throughout history white Americans have presented themselves as superior to African Americans. “Its not just slavery, it’s what the particular kind of slavery we created in Britain and the U.S. did,” Wallis said. “It defined Africans, black slaves, as less than human.”

Wallis explained that older civilizations, such as the Romans, likely had slaves to complete laborious tasks. Yet unlike the Romans, the United States deliberately constructed an institution of slavery that dehumanized African Americans. “It’s not really true that we started with all men are created equal,” Wallis said. “It was foundational to our country that black lives mattered less than white lives.”

Wallis said last year he spoke to a fifth grade class at John Eaton Elementary School in D.C. about immigration and undocumented immigrants in America. The class was appalled to hear that undocumented people are afraid to go to the doctor and asked Wallis why Congress has not stepped in.

Wallis’ answer was simple, “They’re afraid.”

But for a classroom of 11-year-olds the answer was insufficient. Wallis scanned the room and he realized how diverse the students were—African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, White and Maltese. So Wallis explained.

“They’re afraid of you. They’re afraid you look like what America’s becoming,” Wallis said, “You’re America’s future and they’re really afraid of it.”

Fear was an evident theme throughout the talk on Saturday. Wallis quoted research published by Sojourners that found 72 percent of white evangelicals believe shootings of young black men are isolated incidents, where as 82 percent of black evangelicals think shootings of young black men are a common every day matter.

Wallis described how as a little league baseball coach he was exposed to “The Talk.” “The Talk” was a conversation each of his black players had with their parents about how to act if a police officer approached them, especially if the officer was carrying a gun. Wallis’ voice raised an octave as he stopped a moment and looked out at the predominantly white, retired crowd. Then quietly added that white children were growing up completely unaware that this conversation amongst their peers even existed. He finished the anecdote calling for a new talk, one that parents can have with white children to address the issue of privilege.

Throughout the hour-long conversation Wallis remained focused on sharing anecdotes from his childhood and adulthood to descriptively explain to the audience the importance of involving privilege in the conversation of white Christians’ role in racism.

“To be oblivious to racism in all our social systems is to be complacent in it,” Wallis said in his final remarks, “When you benefit from oppression, you are responsible for it— for fixing it, for repairing it.”

The Sin of Slavery

WASHINGTON—- Fifty years ago the best advice an African American mother could give her children was to hide from a policeman if they were in need of help. Reverend Jim Wallis, a religious white Christian who was fifteen at the time, was struck with confusion when he heard his friend’s mother give this advice at the dinner table. Wallis’ mother had always preached the opposite and said if her children were ever lost they should find the closest police station and ask for help. In 2016, Wallis is no longer surprised by the advice, but is angered that it is still relevant today.

Wallis, who has become a renowned activist, preacher, author and professor, is criticizing the American political system’s consciousness of white privilege, racism and the country’s original sin: slavery. His criticism is accompanied by a call to action to end racial injustice in his newly released book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

Wallis is a critic of American exceptionalism and he said in his opinion, white Christians have avoided acknowledging and understanding the privilege of being white for far too long.

“The idol of white supremacy separates white Christians from God,” Wallis said during an author talk on Saturday at Politics and Prose, a local bookstore and café in Northwest, D.C., “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents might fear less for their children’s safety.”

 

FullSizeRender (2)
Photo Credit: Emma Thomas

America’s Original Sin works to draw the connecting line from theological to political, according to Wallis, who spoke at the event about what he called “the normality of whiteness in America.”

Wallis argues America’s original sin was slavery. “Its not just slavery, it’s what the particular kind of slavery we created in Britain and the U.S. did,” Wallis said, “It defined Africans, black slaves, as less than human.”

Wallis said that while older civilizations, such as the Romans, may have had slaves to complete laborious tasks, the slaves were not dehumanized. He said unlike the Romans, the United States deliberately constructed an institution of slavery that dehumanized African Americans. “It’s not really true that we started with all men are created equal,” Wallis said, “It was foundational to our country that black lives mattered less than white lives.”

Last year Wallis spoke to a fifth grade class at John Eaton Elementary School about immigration and undocumented immigrants in America. The class was appalled to hear that undocumented people are afraid to go to the doctor and asked Wallis why Congress hasn’t stepped in.

Wallis’ answer was simple, “They’re afraid.”

But for a classroom of eleven year olds the answer was insufficient. Wallis scanned the room and he realized how diverse the students were—African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, White and Maltese. So Wallis explained.

“They’re afraid of you. They’re afraid you look like what America’s becoming,” Wallis said, “You’re America’s future and they’re really afraid of it.”

Fear was an evident theme throughout the talk on Saturday. Wallis quoted a survey from research he led that found 72 percent of white Evangelicals believe shootings of young black men are isolated incidents, where as 82 percent of black Evangelicals think shootings of young black men are a common every day matter. Wallis says these contrasting views create the foundation for his book, which he decided to write after Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012.

Wallis described how as a little league baseball coach he was exposed to “The Talk.” “The Talk” was a conversation each of his black players had with their parents about how to act if a police officer approached them, especially if the officer was carrying a gun. Wallis’ voice raised an octave as he stopped a moment and looked out at the predominantly white, retired crowd. Then quietly added that white children were growing up completely unaware that this conversation amongst their peers even existed.

“What does it mean to have to tell your son, and your daughter too, that they can’t trust the law enforcement in their own community,” Wallis asked the audience. He finished the anecdote calling for a new talk, one that parents can have with white children to address the issue of privilege.

Throughout the hour-long conversation Wallis remained focused on sharing anecdotes from his childhood and adulthood to descriptively explain to the audience the importance of involving privilege in the conversation of white Christians’ role in racism.

“To be oblivious to racism in all our social systems is to be complacent in it,” Wallis said in his final remarks, “When you benefit from oppression you are responsible for it— for fixing it, for repairing it.”

Wallis has published ten other books and several news columns, has been interviewed on television and radio and has advocated for numerous social justice grassroots movements. He is also the founder of Sojourners, a global publishing organization that advocates for Christians to bring a call of action to social justice issues.

 

Environmental Activism From Australia to Washington

By Emma Thomas

WASHINGTON — Not many twenty-year old Americans can say in passing that they became extremely involved in energy divestment movements while living in Australia for a semester. Yet, Dom Stevens can.

Stevens, a junior at American University studying philosophy and political science, took a course on environmental activism this fall at the University of New South Wales and discovered a new passion – environmental activism.

“The only criteria to be an activist is advocating for the cause you believe in,” said Stevens. Stevens self-identifies as an activist who advocates for attention to be drawn to stopping climate change and encouraging universities to stop spending money on coal and oil, and instead direct those finances to renewable resources.

Stevens says she grew up infatuated by the outdoors. However, her wake up call to environmental activism came when Hurricane Sandy struck her hometown of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. her senior year of high school. Steven’s town was left destroyed, leaving thousands of families distraught and devastated.

After witnessing the physical and emotional damage the storm had caused, Stevens found her calling and interest in protecting the environment.

“A lot of people considered the fact that what happened was so bad and happened so late in the season that it was evidence of climate change. Going through that was kind of a wake up call to me that something had to be done and people needed to be aware,” said Stevens.

Now Stevens works as an intern for Green Corps, a non-profit environmental organization, with the intent and determination to educate her community about climate change.

Green Corps offers yearlong training programs for recent college graduates interested in environmental activism and teaches them about environmental policy, how to campaign and tools for professional success. Green Corps sends their trained activists to work on environmental campaigns for larger non-profits such as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, according to their website.

As an intern Stevens is responsible for organizing and planning an upcoming Green Corps training event at American University later this spring. She is currently working to get the word out across campus and encourage individuals to register for the training.

Steven’s mission to educate remains the same. “Giving more people the tools to know how to make a difference and how to get involved in different groups and campaigns, they can advocate for what they think is important and what they think needs to be changed. I think that’s really rewarding,” said Stevens.