I got married this summer and my husband and I are beginning to consider the many factors involved in making a decision to start a family, including how we would care for a young child. Some questions we have begun to ask are about how our individual family choices are related to broader systems and structures. Things like: How will the current public policy landscape shape and impact our capacity to have a child and care for a child consistently with our values? What organizational practices and policies do our respective employers have toward supporting families in cycles of acute or ongoing caregiving? How can we contribute positively to the growing public perception of the challenges around work and parenting?
Public policy, employer practices, and public attitudes all play a role in creating an environment where all families, especially financially vulnerable families, can thrive. The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Family make clear that “public support of families during times of childbearing and childrearing should be of particular concern.” Yet CPJ’s guideline also recognizes that any approach to empowering families to thrive must reach beyond government “and take carefully into account the ways that other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families positively and negatively.”
It may seem strange to now insert religious freedom into the conversation. What does religious freedom have to do with creating public policies, employer practices and public attitudes that will positively impact families in seasons of childbearing and childrearing? Religious freedom, from a principled pluralist perspective, upholds the capacity of non-governmental civil society organizations, including religious organizations, to contribute fully in public life. How does a vision of religious freedom, in the context of principled pluralism, empower family supportive policies and practices? Let’s explore three distinct, yet overlapping areas:
Religious freedom allows persons and organizations of diverse religions to live out their animating faith paradigms in public life. Embodying faith in public life may look like prayer or worship (explicitly religious acts), but it may also give flesh to advocacy for the vulnerable, service to the modern-day orphan and widow, and even acts of civil disobedience. Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) is a faith-based organization in the greater Washington D.C which states “Jewish tradition calls us to work for tikkun olam (repairing the world).”
JUFJ’s faith-shaped mission to “act on our shared Jewish values by pursing justice” has led it to advocate for paid family leave in D.C, acting as a leading partner in the D.C Paid Family Leave Coalition. In June, JUFJ’s rabbi-in-residence Elizabeth Richman authored a beautiful blog post analogizing the process of advocating for paid family leave to the omer, a season remembering the uncertain weeks the Israelites spent wondering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. Richman writes in language filled with the imagery of her faith, using the plight of the Jewish people in the desert as a metaphor for the challenging process of advancing paid family leave. Richman writes: “Like the Israelites who wandered in the desert, we don’t exactly know what’s coming or what the final law will look like, but we and our community are working hard to make sure that this city receives the best possible legislation.”
It is important to underscore the role of religious freedom here. Religious freedom creates space in a pluralist society for organizations with a distinctive voice, like JUFJ, to speak into the public square with both words and deeds that are saturated in their faith. Richman’s words are so compelling because they are identifiably religious- they use a shared set of faith-inspired narratives and images to cultivate a distinctively religious, distinctively Jewish case for paid family leave.
While shaping public policy is a vital part of supporting families in cycles of work and caregiving, government policies alone are only part of the solution. Principled pluralism recognizes the many non-governmental institutions in society- in this case, churches, extended family and social networks, early childhood education centers, faith-based organizations, social services organizations, and, importantly, parents’ employers- that play their own unique roles in empowering families with very young children to thrive in both work and caregiving. Employers, both secular and faith-based, have the capacity to make unique and positive contributions to supporting their employees’ fulfillment of their potential, both at work and in caregiving.
Many academic and media institutions have published articles or reports on the business case for paid family leave, demonstrating how such policies support not just employees, but employers and bottom lines as well. Less has been done by and for faith-based employers to make the case that paid family leave and family supportive practices in general are good for their bottom lines.
If secular society witnesses faithful organizations, across difference, coming together to say “we are going to put our money where our mouth is, we are going to practice what we preach” it will reinforce the credibility of these organizations that often aim to provide for the spiritual, physical, emotional and financial needs of children and families. This has happened at over 100 Jewish organizations that have agreed, spurred on by Advancing Women Professionals (AWF), to adopt paid family leave and/or workplace flexibility. Founder of AWF Shifra Bronznick explains: “We helped Jewish organizations understand that inflexible workplace policies blocked the advancement of women professionals and that changing the norm in the organized Jewish community would benefit everyone who works for us and influence national policy by demonstrating that progress is possible.”
My own employer, The Center for Public Justice (CPJ) has also aligned its faith-inspired call to advocate for justice for families and children with its organizational practices in adopting family supportive policies for employees. CPJ’s faith-based identity motivates it to provide employee and family supportive policies, including: generous health and retirement benefits, paid time off, paid family leave, flexible hours and the opportunity to work remotely. CPJ’s Employee Handbook explains its faith basis for family supportive policies as follows: “As a Christ-centered workplace that publicly advocates for government and civil society organizations to do justice to families, CPJ seeks to embody family-supportive, employee-supportive policies, practices and culture. Through consistent implementation, CPJ seeks to fulfill the call of Galatians 6:10: “So, then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith…” CPJ believes such policies bolster its own credibility and Christian witness as a public policy organization seeking to promote public justice for children and families, among others.”
Religious freedom, lived through the lens of principled pluralism, creates space in our pluralist public square not only for faith-based organizations to advocate for government policies that support children and families. Religious freedom also makes room for distinctively religious organizations to be a witness to both government and culture through their own faith-shaped practices: in this case, through a slow but growing movement among faith-based organizations of different faiths and sectors to adapt family supportive policies for their own employees.
The public’s perception of paid family leave is very favorable in this moment, with 54% supporting the government requiring employers to provide paid family leave. The public’s current perception of religious freedom, on the other hand? Not so much. Why is that? Paid family leave and cost effective child care options have the potential to positively impact millions of American families, across socio-economic, racial, geographic, and religious borders. Such initiatives have the capacity to bring people together across difference because they have shared benefits.
Unfortunately, right now, to many, religious freedom is seen as a divider, as an issue touted by people with privilege (white, protestant, socio-economically advantaged men, largely), and, at worst, as a code-word for intolerance. Across religious and political difference, many individuals and organizations of faith can help bridge the abyss in public perception between paid family leave (seen as a social good) and religious freedom (seen as a social harm) by making the connection between the two.
Christians hold religious freedom dear. They also hold dear family values and the dignity of work. People and institutions of faith would do well do proactively demonstrate how they are stewarding their religious freedom to advocate for public policies and organizational practices that honor both work and parenting. Last year, Pope Francis did just that when addressed the necessity of maternity leave in our modern society: “[women] must be protected and helped in this dual task: the right to work and the right to motherhood.” A recent Christianity Today article called “What Maternity Leave Policies Have to Do with Christian Witness” made the public perception connection even more explicit. Mandy McMichael writes: “Christian employers could be trailblazers in our nation by offering generous paid parental leave. Such action would be a witness to our communities that we support families not merely with our words but also with our institutional actions.”
Young adults of faith can play a huge role in shaping what happens in public policy, employer practices, and public perception. As more Christian millennials consider parenthood, we should steward our words and actions intentionally to both advocate for family supportive policies and practices, and to make the connection that it is our faith that drives us to such advocacy. What can you do? Here are a just few ideas:
Public Policy: Consider educating yourself about family supportive government policies being proposed on a local, state and federal level. Consider engaging with faith organizations (including CPJ) that are advocating for such public policy reforms. Can’t find a faith organization supporting such initiatives in your community? Consider starting one.
Practice: Do you work for a faith-based employer? Consider proactively discussing with your employer the possibility of implementing family supportive policies and practices consistent with your employer’s faith-based values. You can also have these conversations with faith-based organizations such as your church, faith-based schools/colleges you are involved with, faith-based outreach ministries at which you volunteer or donate, or any religious organization with which you are affiliated.
Public Perception: Start conversations with your friends, your small group, your classmates, your coworkers, your MOPs group, or any other group to which you belong. Discuss how your faith relates to supporting working parents and to advancing religious freedom. Consider writing for local news outlets, blogs, posting on social media, and making the connection about how you are using your religious freedom to advance justice for children and families.
-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan.