People should be free to act according to their religious beliefs beyond church doors

| February 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

The Obama administration’s recent amendments to a federal mandate that health insurance plans include contraception and sterilization free of charge have elicited a wide array of reactions from elected officials and concerned citizens, including the U.S. bishops, who feel the changes don’t go far enough to protect the conscience rights of employers and individuals.

The situation highlights the need once again for better education on the importance of conscience clauses and the need for laws that protect citizens from being forced or coerced into providing services they find morally objectionable.

Broad concerns

While the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate is the subject currently at issue, the subject of conscience clauses also surfaces in other areas: Should pharmacists who object to abortion be forced to dispense contraception that may act as an abortifacient? Should doctors and nurses be obligated to participate in procedures that violate their deeply held religious beliefs about human life?

When health care providers or others take a stand on such issues, it isn’t done on a whim or with spur-of-the-moment thinking; rather, it comes after careful thought and counsel with others. It can be a difficult decision to make because of the risk that it will open them to criticism and hostility from others who don’t share their views.

Such clashes of views are inevitable in a secular society that purports to value religious freedom as well as the separation of church and state. In a secular society, many actions such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide and sterilization may be legal, but that doesn’t make them moral — a view shared not by people of only one faith, but of many. It may be possible for citizens to access these procedures, but those with serious moral or religious objections shouldn’t be forced to facilitate them. Conscience protections offer a reasonable compromise in such situations.

One such compromise is contained in a bill currently in Congress — the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R.1179, S.1467) — which would ensure that the new health care reform law will allow the “issuers, sponsors and beneficiaries of private health plans to negotiate health coverage that is consistent with their moral and religious convictions.” The proposal so far has 164 co-sponsors in the House and 31 in the Senate as well as the support of the U.S. bishops.

Beyond church doors

A growing tendency in the United States is to equate “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship.” The latter allows people to express their faith within places of worship, but discourages them — sometimes blatantly, sometimes more subtly — to live as their faith dictates beyond church doors and particularly in the public policy arena.

True religious freedom allows people to act in light of their well-grounded moral beliefs without the threat of government coercion or intrusion. Conscience protections help strike a balance between preserving that freedom and allowing others to act in ways that society — although not our faith — deems legally permissible.

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Category: Editorials, Spotlight