Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Threats to freedom of conscience could have far-reaching consequences

Trinity University Student Newspaper
4 November, 2011
Reproduced with permission

Note: This column, which expressed concern about threats to freedom of conscience, generated a flurry of charges against the author and a call for a "formal investigation" of his views. His response to his critics appeared in a later column. [Administrator]

Prof. David Crockett*

. . . alas, the assault on conscience has begun, led by various forces in government, academia and pressure groups. The most common threats come in the areas of health care, religious integrity and nondiscrimination policies.

In my last column, I wrote about the troubles of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian who was sentenced to death for his faith. His fate is now in the hands of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. I also hinted in that column that freedom of conscience is starting to be undermined in this country. Allow me to flesh out that little assertion.

One of the growing threats to freedom of conscience is coming from groups that support certain population and sexual freedom agendas, specifically in the areas of abortion services and gay rights. I realize, of course, that these topics are highly contested and controversial. It doesn't take a tremendous intellectual leap, however, to understand that some people believe abortion to be the deliberate taking of innocent human life. Similarly, many people oppose the effort to redefine the normative boundaries of sexual behavior. These positions are intellectually defensible, for those who take the time to examine them. They are also matters of deep conviction.

But alas, the assault on conscience has begun, led by various forces in government, academia and pressure groups. The most common threats come in the areas of health care, religious integrity and nondiscrimination policies.

In the area of healthcare, we are already seeing pharmacists being pressured to provide abortifacient forms of contraception. Academic programs have attempted to require participants to assist with abortions. A Catholic nurse at a New York hospital was told she could face disciplinary action if she refused to participate in an abortion procedure and several weeks ago a New Jersey hospital passed a policy that sought to force nurses to assist in abortions. There are numerous stories of medical school students and residents who face pressure from their programs to participate in abortion-related training, and the current presidential administration has weakened conscience protections.

In the area of religious integrity, we are seeing more and more conflicts with the common sense notion that religious groups should be able to hire coreligionists*. This may involve a requirement to adhere to basic doctrinal principles of faith and practice for the organization, an issue we saw explode last year in the contretemps involving InterVarsity. At some universities, Christian organizations are being told they can't require officers to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship. Apparently, adhering to the very principles that led to the creation of a religious group now make that group a danger to the tolerance agenda.

In the area of discrimination policies, the examples seem endless. Under the auspices of state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender or marital status, private businesses are being sued over their refusal to support or participate in ceremonies that conflict with the owners' religious beliefs. Catholic adoption services have ended in Boston and Washington, D.C., because government mandates would have forced the organization to place children with homosexual couples. The result is one less provider of a basic social good. Students in counseling programs are being told to change their beliefs about homosexuality or risk expulsion. Next on the chopping block may be foster parents and military chaplains.

One final example of this movement occurred last month when the Department of Health and Human Services pulled a grant targeting sex trafficking from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because the group did not provide the "full-range" of services - abortion and contraception - to victims. So much for diversity of viewpoints, even in the provision of social goods.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of this attack comes from Chai R. Feldblum, President Obama's appointee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She said, "There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that's the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner."

The options for those who are targeted are not pretty. They can conform, they can withdraw from the public square or they can engage in civil disobedience. That last option is made explicit in the Manhattan Declaration, drafted two years ago (Google it), which affirms the right of religious freedom as "inherent in every human being, and knowable by all in the exercise of right reason."

In 1785, James Madison wrote his "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments," arguing against the establishment of religion. He spent several paragraphs outlining the damage that religious establishments can do to society, including prompting government to become oppressive to people who think differently. He also feared that if government could take action in the area of religion, it could take action in other areas, such as speech, press and assembly - all those First Amendment things.

The contemporary assault on conscience is a perverse inversion of this theme, for it is nothing less than an assault on those who think differently, supposedly the hallmark of the tolerance agenda. And if government can violate freedom of conscience in this area, it won't take long for the thought police to explore other targets of opportunity.

Like Youcef Nadarkhani, we may someday have to place our hope in the mercy of our own Supreme Leader.

*Coreligionists are defined as individuals of the same faith or religious backgrounds.