Seeking ‘Fixes’ On Court’s Women’s Rights Rulings


Jody Rabhan became director this week of the Washington operations of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), succeeding Sammie Moshenberg, who retired after 33 years with the organization. Rabhan began her career two decades ago as a graduate fellow at the Baltimore Institute for Jewish Communal Service. She continued as a lobbyist for six years before pausing to start a family. She then worked as a private consultant for Jewish nonprofits, specializing in advocacy and development projects. Two years ago she returned as Moshenberg’s deputy. She and her husband have two sons and live in Bethesda, Md.

Q: The NCJW says this week’s Hobby Lobby decision of the U.S. Supreme Court — which exempts family-owned corporations from paying their employees’ insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act if it violates the owners’ religious beliefs — actually relegates women to second-class status. Why is that?

A: What the Supreme Court did in our view is hold that an employer’s religious beliefs trump those of his workers, particularly women. Our concern now is that this decision opens the door to eroding other protections for workers that are currently in place. Who is to say that an employer’s religious beliefs won’t come into play when we are talking about other worker protections?

The decision also opens the door to other types of corporations bringing similar suits.

Last Thursday the Supreme Court issued another decision, McCullen v. Coakley, that ordered the removal of protective buffer zones around abortion clinics. The NCJW called the decision “a defeat for women’s health and safety.” Why?

It absolutely is, because it puts women at risk. The reason for the buffer zones is because of the horrible shootings at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., [in 1994] that killed two women abortion clinic workers and wounded five others. And there have been other abortion clinic murders. It is entirely reasonable to have buffer zones.

But isn’t the court correct when it argued that such zones restrict the free speech of abortion opponents?

No, buffer zones do not restrict freedom of speech, and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech has never been absolute. The NCJW steadfastly stands behind freedom of speech, but given clinic murders and other threats to those entering clinics and accessing their services, we think buffer zones are justified.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals held that they are justified as long as there is some other alternative means for abortion opponents to communicate their views to the women [seeking abortion clinic services]. … Without buffer zones, women are put at physical risk — those who access the clinics’ services and those who work there.

What is your next step in these battles?

We are looking at potential legislative fixes where the Hobby Lobby case is concerned, and we are working with the administration on it. There has been some talk about an executive fix, but our concern is that that would be temporary. We are looking for something more permanent — a congressional fix.

How do you assess your chances?

Many, many years ago when we worked on passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [passed by Congress in 1993] there was near unanimous support, if not unanimous. But this is a different Congress, and Congress in general is sort of hostile to the issue of contraceptive access and the full range of family planning services for women. So we have our work cut out for us.

What are some of your organization’s other key issues?

Gender equality in Israel; working to ensure that the Senate fills judicial vacancies with fair and impartial judges who are committed to constitutional rights, including reproductive rights; and anti-sex trafficking legislation focused on women and children in the U.S. Sex trafficking is a massive issue with much to be done. It is an area that is really picking up speed; there is a lot of will on both sides of the aisle to do good work on this and we thrilled we are in the loop.