As the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS continues through March 11, thousands of Detroiters are living with HIV. Rates are high, but we do not know how high since reporting is still relatively inaccurate due to several economic, cultural and social factors. The ministries of Spirit of Hope reach many positive people each month. Some of our guests do not know they are positive, but many more do. While some are on the protease inhibitors that modern medicine has made possible, others continue to struggle with issues of unstable income, ever-changing housing situations or the insobriety that keeps them from the drugs that will prolong their life. Fear and ignorance compound the problem, creating confusion. The health status of many begins to decline when the urgency of treatment is ignored.
So, what if a doctor, clinic or health provider, in the midst of all of this chaos, decided not to treat people with HIV because it was against their religion to treat diseases that can be transmitted sexually? Preventing the spread and providing treatment for HIV infection and AIDS is a difficult task in Detroit. Nevertheless, hundreds of individuals through various health agencies break their backs and risk their hearts to get to the streets and reach those who will allow themselves to be reached. It is saintly work. Balm in Gilead, Gospel Against AIDS, AIDS Partnership Michigan and many others do the hard work. The question begs to be asked again: What if that doctor, clinic or health care provider decided not to treat people with HIV because it is against their religion to treat diseases that can be transmitted sexually?
The doctors, clinics and health providers receive federal grants, insurance subsidies and public services. Do they have a right to deny services because of their beliefs, or does the funding they receive negate their ability to protest?
A well-known young adult shelter is located down the street from Spirit of Hope. A religious institution, they appropriately receive government grants and services, along with private money, to do the important work of sheltering the hundreds of Detroit young adults left out of the system every month. The public and religious partnership assures enough resources to create a successful program that neither on their own might be able to do. Yet the staff is known for its mistreatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Mistreatment may be an understatement. Bullying and abuse from resident to resident happens under the staff's watchful eye, not only without protest, but sometimes with affirmation. Former residents and staff have confirmed this. Do the principles of religious freedom allow this organization to discriminate and abuse some clients even though they receive public money?
A wing of the religious establishment is up in arms in our country today because they are being required (but not really because of exceptions allowed by the president) to cover contraception for women. Many, but probably not all, of those religious-based health care centers receive public funding of some sort. Do they have the right to deny services?
When will wealthy men lose health services and have their lives put at risk because of supposed religious freedom? Progressive Christians, admittedly not getting the microphones much in this debate, know the truth: The Christian faith is being used by conservatives to abuse, discriminate against and mistreat members of our families, communities and churches. The reprehensible arguments are cloaked in deep ignorance of the lives of those on the edges and fueled by fear of people who look, think and live differently from religiously conservative parts of American culture.
Religious freedom does not give license to deny health care access to the sick, abuse the LGBT community or criminalize being a woman. Neither does the Bible. The neighborhoods and streets of Detroit are the living highways of public and religious policy. Let us get out of our heads and open our eyes to the reality of policy and its affects not merely on corporate or partisan American politics, but the consequences on the ground in our own families, faith communities and neighborhoods.
Life is too short to let the powers that be play games with our sister and brother's health and well being. Start the fight by getting your HIV test. You can do it confidentially and for free during worship at Spirit of Hope this Sunday, March 11. That is true religious freedom at work.