The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the paid family leave debate, pro-life, pro-family groups’ own policies are all over the map

Katey Zeh (Rebecca Ames Photography)
Placeholder while article actions load

Katey Zeh was working as a global maternal health advocate for the United Methodist Church when she gave birth to a baby girl in 2014. It wasn’t until she was pregnant that she realized she would not be eligible for any paid maternity leave, the same policies she had been advocating for on behalf of the denomination.

The UMC provides 18 days of paid leave for agency employees, but Zeh did not receive any leave under the denomination’s policy because she was a contractor. She gave birth on a Monday, was answering work e-mails that Friday, and went back to work the following Monday.

“I was still bleeding,” she said of her recovery after giving birth. “I had these pictures [in my head] that the baby would sleep so much and I could be on e-mail and on phone calls. The reality was so different from that.”

Religious organizations that are also pro-life, pro-family and pro-justice provide a wide range of family leave policies, including some that offer no paid options. There are no consistent family leave policies between religious institutions. Many women like Zeh, however, are raising the issue within their own organizations.

“We talk about family a lot in the church,” said Zeh, who lives in Cary, N.C. “How can we say that we value family and not do the hard thing to make sure that families have what they need to be healthy and thriving?”

Pro-business vs. pro-family

Paid family leave has also become a topic in the presidential race, coming up in GOP and Democratic debates. Politically, attitudes about paid family leave tend to fall between those who believe the government should mandate some kind of paid leave, those who believe the government could provide tax credits to businesses or those who believe the government should not change anything.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan drew scrutiny this fall when he said, “I cannot and will not give up my family time” as a condition of his speaker candidacy. Ryan, who is a devout Catholic, has opposed family leave measures proposed over the past several years. A spokeswoman for Ryan declined to share the office’s policy on family leave for its congressional employees.

The topic of paid family leave has come up in religious circles this year as publications like Sojourners, the National Catholic Register and Christianity Today magazine have raised the issue among Catholic and evangelical readers.

The U.S. has polarized attitudes on paid family leave because of how disparately couples treat work and family issues, said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. The divide is especially sharp among religious conservatives, many of whom have more traditional family structures where women stay at home with children. Many conservatives are fearful that paid family leave could hurt businesses while others say family leave would help women, especially those facing unplanned pregnancies.

“There’s some tension among conservatives between the pro-business crowd and the pro-family crowd,” Wilcox said. The divide comes over whether the government should mandate something more than the basic Family Medical Leave Act, which requires businesses provide employees with a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid.

Wilcox predicts that family leave will increasingly become a talking point for Republican candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio announced a paid family leave proposal, which would use tax credits to provide incentives for companies, during a conservative Christian conference in September.

Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and a former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, said businesses and organizations must look beyond sheer numbers of the cost of providing paid family leave. Investing in the well-being of women and their families will benefit an organization in the long run, Woo argues.

“It’s short-sighted to just look at the cost,” Woo said. “We’re talking a period of time that sets up a relationship between a child and mother. That’s a precious period of time.”

Large majorities of major religious groups favor paid family leave, according to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute. In response to the question “Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose or strongly oppose requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child?” 82 percent of respondents overall strongly favor or favor the idea. That same response was given by 78 percent of white mainline Protestants, 73 percent of white evangelicals, 85 percent of black Protestants, 88 percent of Catholics and 91 percent of those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition.

While many Americans want paid family leave, some are divided over whether institutions should be mandated to provide it. Some, like Joy Pullmann of the Federalist, a conservative Web site, fear that paid leave could force businesses to raise their prices, putting women out of a job.

“I don’t think people look at the situation holistically,” Pullmann said. “We don’t live in this magical world where everyone can be paid for maternity leave.”

The decision to provide it is between business owners “and God, and for government to get in the way is eroding the balance between church and state,” Pullmann said.

16 weeks off

Paid family leave has been hotly debated both nationally in the presidential debates and in the District this fall. In October, Washington, D.C., leaders introduced legislation for 16 weeks paid family leave that would make it the most generous place in the country for an employee to take time off after giving birth. Jews United for Justice is spearheading the push among locally based faith groups — which include Sojourners, Interfaith Power and Light and the Methodist Federation for Social Action — to back the legislation.

[D.C.’s 16-week family leave plan would be most generous in U.S.]

Cardinal Donald Wuerl said the Archdiocese of Washington is reviewing the legislation, which will have its first hearing Wednesday. His own archdiocese reflects how Catholic archdioceses and dioceses provide a range of policies on family leave.

After having a baby, employees of the archdiocese may take up to 16 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a 24-month period under the District of Columbia Family Medical Leave Act. Depending on their length of employment, they can receive payment through short-term disability, according to a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The archdiocese provides no paid family leave — not uncommon among Catholic institutions that for decades have struggled to pay salaries and benefits of lay employees in positions once filled with religious men and women who would have received a stipend.

A National Catholic Reporter survey of archdioceses and dioceses published in July revealed that of the 37 that responded, just one archdiocese offers a one-week parental-leave policy at full pay for all diocesan parents. In 32 dioceses, employees rely on vacation time, accrued sick days or a paid time-off category that lumps both of those things together.

Pope Francis and leaders in the Catholic Church have emphasized labor rights, but that hasn’t translated into policy at the local parish level, said Julie Rubio, a professor of Christian ethics at Saint Louis University.

“Given all the things Catholic social teaching says about the rights of workers and the importance of family, it seems amazing to me that Catholic institutions weren’t paving the way for paid family leave,” Rubio said.

How national religious groups break down

Paid maternity or family leave is unusual for many religious organizations, including Focus on the Family, Catholic Charities USA and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Employees are guaranteed their jobs under the Family and Medical Leave Act during 12 weeks of unpaid leave and these employees are able to use sick, vacation and personal time to pay for the time off.

Many groups and organizations, like the March for Life in Washington, D.C., have small staffs.

“We would love to offer a nice generous maternity/paternity leave package, but with a teeny staff of four full-timers and two part-timers, we just cannot swing it,” said organization President Jeanne Mancini. “It is something I’ve thought about and wish could be different but just isn’t reality with our current makeup.”

Spokespeople for some organizations, including the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation (both based in Washington, D.C.) and the executive committee for the Southern Baptist Convention declined to disclose their family leave policies to The Washington Post. Also declining to comment was Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain that won a high-profile Supreme Court case last year over providing certain kinds of contraception to its employees. Spokespersons for the Salvation Army, Compassion International, Concerned Women For America and Samaritan’s Purse did not return The Post’s request for information.

There is no set standard for churches from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Southern Baptist Convention, representing the two largest Christian denominations in the United States. Each church or agency offers an enormous range of family leave policies.

The Southern Baptist’s publishing arm, LifeWay Christian Resources, provides up to four months paid leave for mothers both for birth and adoption and does not offer paid paternity leave (fathers can use family and sick leave). Women in the Southern Baptist’s International Mission Board who deliver a baby overseas where their families are based as missionaries may receive one paid month off and men may receive two weeks off. Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the North American Mission Board do not offer paid leave, though employees may use sick and vacation time.

In 2009, the Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community launched a campaign to advocate for paid leave. As of October, AWP had 100 Jewish organizations committed to paid leave, most of which did not offer paid leave before the campaign.

Protestant Christian denominations provide a range of family leave. For instance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides four consecutive weeks of paid leave for both adoptive and birth mothers and fathers. Evangelical denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Christian Missionary Alliance do not provide paid leave.

There is no set standard across the Episcopal Church, though North Carolina-based Rev. Callie Swanlund received 12 weeks of paid maternity leave from her parish, and the church was reimbursed through disability insurance. After two pregnancies, Swanlund brought her babies to work with her for the first several months until they were crawling so she could continue breastfeeding and bonding after maternity leave ended.

“This was an incredibly important time and required some flexibility on all of our parts, but made me a stronger priest and mama,” she said.

For many religious organizations, like World Vision (one of the country’s largest charities), maternity and paternity leave is considered “short-term disability,” time off that is determined by the employee’s doctor (about 6-8 weeks). At the Christian organization, short-term disability covers 50 percent of the employee’s salary, and an employee may use up to three weeks of sick leave to cover the other 50 percent and take additional sick and vacation leave.

Women in religiously affiliated academia have reported mixed reviews of their experiences of having a baby before reaching tenure. When Courtney Pace Lyons was in her 20s and working on her PhD at Baylor University, having a child seemed impossible, she said. There’s an unspoken rule that women in academics should not have children until they reach tenure, often when they are about 40.

After she approached Baylor about its lack of a policy for graduate students, she was told to draft a recommendation for family leave options for students. Because of her recommendation, male and female graduate students can take a semester off with half of their stipend or half a semester off with a full stipend.

“Negotiating maternity leave is still something many of us have to do on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “What happens when they say no? What it says is, ‘You can be here until your family interferes with our institution.’ ”

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Ban the Lord’s Prayer in theaters? Here are 7 reasons why we probably should.

The amazing story of U.S. Army chaplains who ministered to Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials 70 years ago today

How religion became a destructive — and redemptive — force for ‘Black Lives Matter’