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

Service, not Servitude

In good conscience: rebuttal revisits arguments

Trinity University Student Newspaper
18 November, 2011
Reproduced with permission

Note: This is the author's response to critics of a previous column, which expressed concern about threats to freedom of conscience and generated a flurry of charges against the author, including a call for a "formal investigation" of his views. [Administrator]

Prof. David Crockett*

Space constraints prevent me from fully addressing all of the various charges leveled against me in last week's responses to my Nov. 4 column on freedom of conscience. My sense about the collective whole is that people read into my column arguments that simply are not there. Here is a scattershot series of selected rebuttals.

Professor O'Brien highlights the obvious - that I had an argument to make. O'Brien is correct that we cannot pretend to be neutral when it comes to morality and politics. Government must make distinctions. I do not argue that religious liberty allows anyone of any religious persuasion to do anything he desires in the name of conscience. I do not absolutize this liberty. Child sacrifice cults, for example, would not merit such freedom. I simply question whether the specific distinctions being made in the areas I highlighted are merited. While we have to answer the question of where we should draw lines in this specific context, it need not be a zero-sum game. An accommodationist approach would allow religious groups to practice their faith even as secular organizations pursue alternative methods.

Professor Stone argues that access to public funds changes this calculation. If a religious group receives public funds to support its work, it must ignore fundamental precepts of its doctrine. But while that may be how the law is implemented today, it is not clear that things MUST be that way. One of the arguments for letting faith-based groups provide social services is that they are able to address the spiritual side of people - allowing redemption and spiritual transformation to reform criminal behavior or heal chemical dependency, for example. Assuming there is some merit to this approach, it seems counter-productive to require these groups to strip themselves of the very qualities that set them apart from secular organizations.

Allowing religious groups to stay religious may not make secularists very happy, but it does not constitute a breach of the mythical wall of separation between church and state. Someone else may have filled the void when Catholic Charities bowed out of the adoption business - but the point is it should not have HAD to do so. The absolutists in this dispute are those who seek to relegate religion to a purely private and marginal force in society.

Stone also argues that religious beliefs are not "special." But they ARE special. They are explicitly protected in the First Amendment. Stone may prefer to restrict the free exercise of religion to mere freedom of worship, but freedom of religion goes beyond worship services to encompass all manner of actions in the public square, including caring for widows and orphans. No one has a "right" to adopt a child, and it strikes me as bizarre to argue that Catholic Charities was involved in a "social injustice" by adhering to its religious tenets concerning sexuality.

That last point addresses the "challenge" in the SDA column. Limiting my comments to my own faith, orthodox Christianity makes no distinctions based on race or disability. It has ALWAYS taught what the SDA would no doubt label a "heterosexist" sexuality.

The most hyperbolic charges came from students, who went to heroic lengths to cast my column in the most pejorative light possible. I devoted a grand total of one paragraph to LGBT-related issues, focusing entirely on the narrow question of the extent to which various laws and policies favoring LGBT concerns threaten the religious liberty of others. I did not "bash" anyone. I did not imply that any person or class of persons was not religious. I used standard political science jargon to refer to group action in politics - hardly "dehumanizing" anyone or redefining anyone's existence. If my column "shattered" the "sense of safety" of certain individuals on campus, I would gently suggest they reexamine the place of political discourse at a university. In broaching the subject of freedom of conscience, I did not attack anyone's sexuality, nor did I argue for government regulation of what people do in their bedrooms. I simply raised questions about the extent to which some people and groups are being pressured to accept and actively support lifestyles they disagree with, at the risk of being expelled from the public square.

Speaking of which, the predictable comparison to the civil rights movement is an attempt to delegitimize my argument by a risible comparison to white racism. The plea for a "formal investigation" of my views strikes at the very heart of the role of free speech, supposedly one of the central themes of the recent First Amendment week. Since there is clearly only one publicly-acceptable way to think about the question I raised, the ridicule associated with the alternative perspective only serves to suppress other voices. Having jumped out of a few airplanes in my life, I can handle public scorn. Others may feel less confident to engage in the free circulation of ideas. Properly defined, tolerance is a two-way street that requires rational discourse about right and wrong, accompanied by a moderate demeanor and the willingness to give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt about his intentions - at least until proven otherwise.