First it was doctors who wouldn’t perform abortions and pharmacists who wouldn’t fill prescriptions for contraceptives.
Several years back a Chicago police officer sought an exemption from an assignment to guard an abortion clinic. And most recently, a town clerk in New York state refused to sign the marriage license of a lesbian couple who had every right to marry under the recently passed state law.
In these cases public servants claimed religious exemptions from doing a part of their job under the guise of so-called “conscience clauses”. In each case, “religious freedoms” of public servants have trampled over the rights of the people they took an oath to serve.
Many of the country’s conscience clauses were established after abortion was legalized to allow the religious to abstain from administering the procedure. But the slope has gotten more and more slippery as other public servants have attempted to expand laws that were once confined to health care issues, to all spheres of public life. And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the biggest proponents of expanding the coverage of “conscience clauses.”
Advocates of the clauses believe they safeguard their religious freedom — that forcing a town clerk to issue a marriage license to a homosexual couple is a violation of the clerk’s rights as a religious person who condemns homosexuality as a sin. It’s a disingenuous interpretation that allows for anyone who wants to force their beliefs on others to call it “religious freedom.” And it’s dangerous.
These conscientious objections—not only in health care, but all spheres of public life—are not a simple matter of individual religious beliefs and rights, because they always affect someone else’s access to care or services.
While these individuals have the right to consider their religious beliefs in determining their own personal medical and social decisions, those personal beliefs cannot be forced on the public, as they pick and choose which services to provide.
As Americans we are guaranteed the right to freedom of religion, but that freedom is limited so that it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others to do the same. The reality is that the individuals who claim “conscience clause” rights are discriminately denying the patient or individuals to whom they are denying care or services to, the right to practice their own freedom of religion—or non-religion. By denying public access to legally allowed services, they are forcing their beliefs on specific members of the public who don’t share their religious views.
For those who have been denied services, it’s downright insulting and can be humiliating. Such refusals of service may lead to additional costs in time and expenses to the patient or individual who must find a way to obtain the service or care another way. It is simply unacceptable for any one person’s religious view to infringe upon the rights and lives of others, whose choices they may not agree with — especially true in circumstances of public employees or organizations that accept any form of public funding.
New York Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, had it right in his response to the town clerk who refused to issue the marriage license to the lesbian couple. He said, “When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose.”
It’s that simple. If your religious beliefs infringe on your ability to do parts of your work, then it’s time to find another job.
Religious freedom does not mean that you can ignore portions of your job, administer only the portions of the law that you like, deny services to the public based on your personal beliefs or infringe on the rights of another.
What conscience clause advocates need to understand is that freedom of religion is for everyone — not only those who share their religious views.