Freedom of Conscience vs. Barack Obama
by Dan Horning | GWU
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment. Arguably the most valued and most controversial amendment to the United States Constitution. The early American Republic almost fell apart because states’ rights advocates felt the Constitution was too over-reaching and did not protect the basic freedoms and rights which they had fought for against Great Britain.
The freedom to practice one’s religion freely has always been a challenge throughout our history. Quakers, Catholics, and Jews were persecuted on the very soil to which they fled to escape intolerance and tyranny. Slaves had to develop underground churches, their only source of spiritual freedom while in shackles. Muslims have been challenged since the attacks of September 11, 2001, to the point that whether or not a mosque could or should be built near the site of the World Trade Centers was a major public question.
With freedom of religion comes freedom of conscience, a right upheld by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the US Constitution, and the US Supreme Court case Palko v. Connecticut. Freedom of conscience is the ability to hold a particular viewpoint or opinion, to change viewpoints and opinions, and to live out that viewpoint and opinion so long as it does not interfere with the common or public good. The recent controversy over Catholic institutions and the birth control mandate from the Patient Affordable Care Act serves as an illustration of what happens when the common good and conscience rights clash.
Let me say this from the outset: this whole debate isn’t over birth control. It isn’t about the pill, nor is it over an attempt to change any law regarding abortion or contraception, or access to said services. This isn’t a battle over morals, theology, or science. This is about conscience and the law. This is a battle over whether the Federal government can force a religious organization to violate its most fundamental beliefs by making it pay for something it believes is morally wrong. The scales of justice, the Constitution, and the American public are on the sides of conscience and free expression.
Remember that time Barack Obama said “If you’ve got health insurance, you like your doctors, you like your plan, you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan”? Put simply, the new Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate makes this campaign promise a blatant lie.
The HHS mandate would require all insurance provided by employers to cover contraceptive and abortificant services, with an exemption only for churches. This does not include religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, or insurance companies affiliated with religious groups. Hence the dispute between the White House and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), between Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Catholic and other religious groups are objecting to the new rule because of their opposition to birth control and abortion on moral grounds. The White House and HHS are for it citing women’s health rights and healthcare access.
Now, people often cite the high number of Catholics who support or use contraceptives as a reason why the USCCB is wrong in challenging the rule. If Catholics don’t even follow the rules, why enforce the rule? Well, plenty of Catholics have cheated on their spouses, used God’s name in vain, stolen and murdered, lusted and lied, all of which are against the teachings of the Church. Should those rules be changed? My guess is that most people would say no.
Others cite the 15% of medical cases where contraceptives are used for treating non-pregnancy issues, such as menopause, certain cancers, and other ailments. Catholic leaders have already said they have no objections to using contraceptives to treat these conditions. Still more will argue that if these services are not mandated to be covered by insurance, then the poor will be hurt the most for lack of access. Not to stir up an old argument, but isn’t that what Planned Parenthood and other groups are for, to help poor women have access to sexual health services and products? Besides, anyone who argues that the USCCB is anti-women needs to do a little more research on a few examples of the services Catholic organizations provide to women.
So what’s the big fuss about? At the heart of this fight is freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Are religious groups allowed to practice their beliefs, or will the government force them to violate them? We all know some institution that could be affected. How many of you reading this attend a religiously affiliated university, such as Villanova, Notre Dame, or Brigham Young? How many of you have broken a bone and been treated at a religious hospital such as those run by the Catholic Health Association? How many have bought into insurance plans run by religious organizations, such as the Deseret Mutual, run by the Mormon Church? If this mandate stays in place, these organizations would either be forced to comply and finance something they find morally questionable, or be forced out of business for failure to comply with the law. HHS and the White House offered a compromise, in which these groups wouldn’t have to fund contraceptive and abortificant services, but would have to provide referrals to places where they could be found. This is also a forceful violation of conscience rights.
Is it right for religious groups to oppose birth control and abortion? That isn’t my right or place to say. We are a country built on disagreement and compromise, but more importantly, tolerance. In spite of some of the most vile views held by people, they have the freedom to have those views and make them known in the public sphere. The KKK has the right to assemble peacefully so as to denounce blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other minorities. The Westboro Baptist Church has the right to protest at the funerals of US soldiers.
As vile as we may think these views to be, the Supreme Court has ruled that they are protected under the First Amendment. Our laws apply to all US citizens, not just the ones with whom we agree or disagree. What you find morally right, I may find morally wrong, and vice versa. Which one of us is right? Who knows. It might be one of us, both of us, or neither of us.
But, this is just one case, you may say. Surely this isn’t an assault on conscience rights, as commentators across the political spectrum want you to believe. But when even Tim Kaine and Joe Biden think President Obama was wrong with this mandate, you know something is wrong. Perhaps the scariest part of this entire debate isn’t the President’s attempt to impose his views of morality on the country, but the possible precedent this could create.
Will churches in the South have to start checking the immigration status of those who line up for food handouts? Will Muslim women be banned from wearing the burka in public? Will Jewish schools be forced to serve pork related products because non-Jews attend the school? Will nurses and doctors who oppose abortion and euthanasia be forced to perform these procedures for fear of losing their jobs and licenses? Will those who hold contrary views to government regulation or popular opinion be labeled as bigots, intolerant, and stuck in the past? Will dissent and discussion be permitted in the classroom and in academic settings?
By trying to force Catholic institutions to pay for something they object to, the Obama administration has attempted to de-legitimize the teacher. When the teacher is forced to practice something it preaches against, it loses its moral standing. When private organizations lose their moral authority and credibility, a void is created and, more often than not, government steps in. When the government steps in, conscience slips away. Look at Nazi Germany and Communist China. When private organizations are crushed and suffocated, who else do the people turn to?
President Obama has a chance to correct this wrong, and create, dare I say, a teachable moment regarding this debate. He can open a dialogue with the USCCB, and the public can debate this subject in a respectful, humanist manner. He can rescind the HHS mandate and start from scratch, working to ensure all sides find equal justice under law. Or he can continue his assault on conscience, belittling and denigrating people and organizations who hold views different than his own based not on partisan political talking points, but on deeply held, moral grounds.
Today, people are standing up and demanding that their views and rights be respected. Not agreed with, but respected, as our Constitution ensures. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” May conscience never remain silent, but be loud, respectful, and always at the forefront of our government’s attempts to form a more perfect union.Dan Horning is a Philadelphia native and senior at The George Washington University. An International Affairs major concentrating in international development and international economics, Dan has worked on a number of political campaigns and is a self described public policy nerd.