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December 31, 2014

Understanding Conscience Claims as Claims of an Absolute Duty

Imperative in the struggle for liberty of conscience is the claim that the right of conscience is protection for an absolute duty. Without this there is no point in the struggle, nor can the general public or the civil courts understand the true nature of the claims being made, or why they should be accommodated.

The two key areas in which liberty of conscience is under attack are life-destroying medical procedures or drugs and the accommodation of homosexuality. The first, while a vigorous struggle, is reasonably winnable, while the latter, without robust protections in law, is not. This is because homosexuals are seen as an historically oppressed class, against which there should be no adverse judgments. Consequently, even moderate to conservative political leaders and the news media from the left to an astonishingly degree into the right, and both at the national and not uncommonly into the local level, oppose liberty of conscience against accommodating homosexual behavior. Obtaining adequate conscience legislation even in conservative states such as Arizona or Kansas has not proved possible, and wherever it is introduced, it faces vigorous and uncompromising opposition. Existing conscience protections are at risk of being repealed in the present environment, when new sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) legislation is introduced it can be expected not to have adequate conscience protections, and the enemies of conscience show no sign of permanently accepting conscience in the public square, as for instance, there is a general understanding that houses of worship have a permanent right to exist as such.

Faced with a situation in which state courts in different states repeatedly deny the rights of conscience in the name of “gay rights,” and in which the viewpoint of the cultural left has captured the opinion of mainstream media, a recent proposal by Russell Nieli, writing in Public Discourse, is to provide services that support homosexual behavior under protest. This is exactly what must not be done. The true objection to providing such services is not that we don’t like doing it, or that we hate the people being served, or that we’re uncomfortable being involved with homosexuality, but that providing such services is sinful. To contribute to sinful behavior is itself sinful according to Christ’s own words (Matt. 18:7) and Christians absolutely cannot provide such services, regardless of legal penalty or personal cost. Since “sin” is not a category that the law of the state can consider, we use another, “conscience violation.” It is understood that conscience can have requirements that may conflict with the law, but the requirement that we do not sin is an absolute duty to God, one not open to discussion, regardless of the pain it causes ourselves or anyone else, and regardless of the penalty to ourselves. On the side of believers, we must always obey God, regardless of the penalty, but on the side of a state committed to religious neutrality, it can only try to accommodate religious commitments as far as compelling state interest will allow. But this practically to this is not symmetrical with respect to requiring or forbidding actions. As Christopher Tollefson noted in the linked article, religiously required action may sometimes be forbidden (as in the cases of human sacrifice or polygamy), but religiously forbidden actions should never be required. Here we should remind ourselves that even during World War II, when the nation’s life was at stake, and it faced an evil enemy, military service was not required of conscience objectors, nor is there, in English law, a general duty to rescue. Today antidiscrimination law and policy does require that religiously forbidden actions be taken (in the area of sexual orientation), in contrast to what was culturally disfavored actions (in the area of race).

The need to protect the absolute duty not to take action which is wrong, which a religiously neutral state can only interpret as an absolute duty not to take action believed to be wrong, is the reason we have religious freedom, not to accommodate preferences, but to accommodate hard, unbending religious requirements. In a society in which personal gratification is deemed the highest good, people assume religious freedom is to aid in quality of life. In contemporary society, some people prefer Latin masses, others Protestant hymns, others praise choruses, others perhaps Muslim prayer, or Hindu rituals. But this is not the reason religious freedom came to be recognized as a good. Historically, religious freedom arose in the West to accommodate absolute religious requirements. The denial of these requirements by state religions were tearing western societies apart, resulting in extreme penalties such as death by burning, and precipitating civil wars. Religious freedom provided a modus vivendi by which people of different convictions could live together in society in a high degree of ordered liberty. But underlying the order of religious freedom the same unbending commitments remained.

In denying liberty of conscience, the cultural left (secularists, homosexual activists, and feminists) are demanding that those unbending religious requirements be given up by religious believers in the personal lives. Laws and policies therefore encounter non-compliance, since the same unbending requirements remain with committed religious believers. People do not close their businesses, or risk fines or imprisonment for the sake of “animus,” but for conscience conviction, in obedience to God, as they understand His commands to be. It is crucial that conscientious objectors not acquiesce under protest. To do so is in the first case wrong, since we cannot under any circumstances take immoral action, which is the true claim of conscience. Beyond that, it has the practical effect of destroying the case for liberty of conscience. If believers can, after all, take the required action under protest, there is no need to accommodate them, since everyone has to do things they may not wish to do.

If there is any hope of accommodating the religious conscience on the question of homosexuality, both the enemies of religious liberty and the general public must see that this is an issue on which we are willing to take whatever penalty is prescribed for however long it is prescribed. And to continually press for conscience protections in law. This may mean that orthodox Christians become an underclass, excluded from much of business and the professions. Then, perhaps, with enough penalties taken by conscientious objectors, enough unjust fines, firings, business and charity closures, and perhaps imprisonment, it will be seen that the cost of requiring acceptance and celebration of homosexuality is too high, and liberty of conscience will be granted. But this is a moral issue, which does not lend itself to compromise on either side. It may be that orthodox Christians are never accommodated in the requirement to facilitate homosexual behavior. But this is no excuse to acquiesce in immoral behavior. We must always obey God.

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