Conscientious Objectors

No, this isn't an article about the draft. It's about a different kind of conscientious objector: the kind that hides behind religion while they impose their religious beliefs on you.

You first started hearing about them with regards to the issue of abortion: doctors in public hospitals or emergency rooms who refused to dispense emergency contraception. Then you started hearing about pharmacists who wouldn't dispense emergency contraception or the "morning after" pill (RU486) and some who wouldn't even dispense birth control pills. Then there were doctors who refused to treat HIV+ patients or simply gays in general. And clerks in Vermont who refused to issue civil union licenses to gay couples. Now we have public officials in Massachusetts who refuse to perform gay marriages or issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Several states and even the US Congress have introduced pieces of legislation that purportedly protect one's freedom of conscience and freedom of religion by allowing them to refuse to provide the services for which they are hired/elected if they find something about you or your beliefs to be offensive or against their beliefs. But is it really protecting their conscientious beliefs or is it imposing those beliefs on another? I wonder how many need to ask which way I see it.

Let's take a moment here to set down some principles.

First, all humans have the right to live their life as they see fit according to the beliefs that they hold dear. This is, in the end, what "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" means. According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are formed to secure these rights. In other words, it is our government's job to protect that right for each and every individual.

This will inevitably lead to clashes. A murderer thinks it's okay to murder. His/her victim does not. Is the murderer imposing his/her belief's on his/her victim or is the victim imposing his/her beliefs on the murderer? The issue therefore is one of determining who is imposing their beliefs on another when those beliefs clash.

The answer is rather simple: will acting on one's beliefs adversely impact the life of another against his/her will? If the answer is yes, then the action is (or should be) illegal.

In the case of our murderer, if s/he acts on the belief that it's okay to kill another, will it adversely affect the life of the victim? The answer is yes. The victim believes that it's not okay to kill another. By acting on that (ie, not killing anyone else) is the victim adversely affecting the murderer's life? The answer is no. Therefore, it is the murderer who is imposing his/her beliefs on the victim.

Let's take another example of smoking in public. (And remember, I'm a former smoker and still enjoy the occasional cigarette.) A smoker believes he has the right to smoke wherever he wants. If he acts on his beliefs, and smokes in a restaurant for example, he's forcing others to inhale his second hand smoke possibly against their will. Therefore, he cannot smoke in a public place where others may inhale second hand smoke against their will. (And this includes the employees, who have the right to safe working conditions.)

But what about the cases of employment given as examples above? The issue becomes a bit more cloudy.

When someone is hired for a particular job, they agree to perform the tasks that job entails. Employers cannot refuse to hire or fire someone because those tasks conflict with the practice of someone's faith and must make reasonable effort to allow the employee to practice their faith. This is necessary because with regular employment (ie, manual labor of some sorts, from flipping burgers to stocking shelves to assembly lines to cashier, etc.), what job one takes is often not of one's choosing. If the only place in town that's hiring is a factory that's open seven days a week, and your faith prohibits you from working on one of those days, then the factory has to accommodate you within reason if you're qualified to do the job.

But when someone takes a job that requires licensing of any sort or runs for an elected position, they know ahead of time what that job entails. If they're not able to fulfill the roles that job demands, then they shouldn't take the job. If they choose to take it anyway, they cannot then pick and choose which tasks they want to perform. Running for elected office is always a choice. When Senator Lieberman was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, I was very upset by his statements that he wouldn't work on the Sabbath. As if the entire country— indeed, the entire world— has to shut down so they wouldn't make him work on the Sabbath. If he's unable to work on the Sabbath, then don't run for the office that requires work on what you consider the Sabbath. If you know what the job entails when running for office, then you accept that you'll be asked to perform those duties.

When Vermont began issuing license for civil unions, many town clerks got upset and said that asking them to issue the license was violating their religious freedom. I strongly disagree. Their religion may say that being gay is wrong. It may even say that they cannot give official recognition to a gay wedding/union. But issuing a license for a civil union is not the individual giving recognition, it is the state giving official recognition. By refusing to issue the license, those clerks were forcing others to abide by their religious dictates. Issuing of a civil union license in no way means the individual condones civil union anymore than issuing a liquor license means the individual condones the consumption of alcohol. There are fundamentalist churches out there who still believe that whites should not marry blacks. But you certainly would never expect to hear someone refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple on the grounds it violates the religious beliefs of the clerk. [Note: This article was written before the Louisiana justice of the peace refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in 2009.] A clerk making such a claim would justifiably be let go for imposing their beliefs on others.

A pharmacist, when choosing to become a pharmacist, understands that birth control pills, including emergency birth control, are part of the job. If the pharmacist takes a job at a public pharmacy, to not dispense medication to someone is forcing that individual to abide by the religious dictates of the pharmacist. If a pharmacist wants to limit what medication s/he will dispense, then s/he needs to form a private pharmacy where such limitations are permissible. Just like the Boy Scouts wish to discriminate against certain invididuals. If they are a public entity, entitled to government funding, then such discrimination is not permissible. If they wish to discriminate, then they must declare themselves a private religious organization and they can discriminate against anyone they want. But they can't get government funding any more than the KKK can. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

The kind of "conscientious objector" laws being proposed are not what they seem. They don't protect anyone's civil rights: the simply legally sanction overt discrimination, bigotry and intolerance. They're another example of the slick packaging that the rrr (radical religious right) devises in order to make their agenda more palatable to freedom loving Americans. But once again, the agenda of the rrr is not to protect the rights of all, but to protect the rights of those who believe as they do and to take away the rights of all who don't.

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