I believe the government should preserve and protect an individual’s freedom of conscience and seek to never violate it.
I love that the U.S. does not force the Amish to pay for social security. We allow these people to continue a way of life separate from the rest of society. I don’t agree with the choices of the Amish, but I want them to be able to live according to the freedom of their conscience.
Conscience is a powerful thing. Who can forget the immortal words of Martin Luther, standing up against an oppressive church tribunal?
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”
But limitations are slowly encroaching on an individual’s freedom of conscience today in various and complicated ways.
The Right to Refrain
A troubling decision by the Supreme Court in New Mexico last August indicated that an individual’s right of conscience to refrain from participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony must give way to the rights of the couple who asked for their services. “There is a price we all have to pay in our civic life,” said the judge. I disagree. I don’t want anyone to have to pay the price of violating their conscience.
Imagine this scenario. A lesbian couple own a small business that makes signs. One of the Westboro cult members comes in and tells them they will soon be protesting another military funeral. They ask for signs that demean American soldiers, plus a few that say “God hates fags” thrown in for good measure. The lesbian couple refuses. They cannot in good conscience create signs that go against their deeply held convictions.
If this were to happen, I’d side with the lesbian couple. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.
It’s not that the couple would be denying the Westboro folks service simply for being religious. (If they were to ask for a simple sign of “Happy birthday” for a granddaughter, for example, they would do it in a heartbeat.) It’s that the lesbian couple disagrees at a fundamental level with the message being communicated by the signs. I believe they should have the right to refrain.
I hope that same couple would stand up for the rights of the Christian photographer or baker who can’t in good conscience participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, the photographer who disagrees at a fundamental level with the message that wedding communicates.
The HHS Mandate
It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court does with the recent challenge regarding the HHS Mandate – that for-profit corporations must pay for employees’ birth control.
Should Catholic business owners who do not believe in the morality of birth control be forced to purchase a product they believe to be wrong? I say no. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.
Even though I do not have a moral problem with birth control and my conscience would not be affected, I would not want my Catholic neighbor’s conscience to be violated. I would stand up for freedom of conscience.
Should the owners of Hobby Lobby be forced to pay for their employees’ abortifacient drugs? I say no. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.
But don’t our taxes go to all sorts of things we disagree with? Drone strikes, Planned Parenthood, wasteful spending, etc. Yes, they do. But there is a difference between the government collecting taxes (“Render to Caesar”) and the government forcing a business owner to make a purchase of a product.
The question is not: Will employers pay taxes? The question here is, Will the government force employers to make a purchase of something that goes against their conscience?
Our Neighbor’s Conscience
Freedom of conscience is not inviolable or a trump card in every situation where a dispute arises. Still, one of the ways we navigate the complexity of living in a democratic republic is by limiting the use of governmental force whenever possible. It’s one thing to stand up for your own deep convictions. It’s an even better thing to stand up for the right of someone else’s deeply held convictions.
Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.
Trevin Wax serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. Visit his blog, Kingdom People, and follow him on Twitter @TrevinWax.