Secularism and Right of Conscience – 1

An earlier post generated a good deal of discussion on Facebook; that I was indisposed to join the discussion was a shame, but unavoidable.  Nevertheless, I’d like to continue the line of thought from that earlier post, with some reference to the FB conversation.

The driving point of that post was the following question, which was quoted by a commenter:

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

The commenter answered with a “categorical yes.”  This, of course, is equivalent to saying “absolutely, always and everywhere, yes,” which would lead to some troubling implications.

Take for instance the example posed by another commenter, who worried that the Hobby Lobby decision would open the door to forced compliance in “animal sacrifice.”  Now, forget for a moment that this concern seems to have the actual issue upside-down and backward, and consider how it neatly answers our first commenter:  Is it right, then, that we should require people to be complicit in animal sacrifice, even if they are morally opposed?

Our first commenter says yes, categorically; our second commenter says no, implicitly.  Having thus answered the first, let us address the second.

Our second commenter has the issue upside-down because the employer, in this case, is not imposing upon the employee, but rather is being imposed upon from above.  If we are to take the his concern seriously, this is how it would look:  The employer is not demanding employee compliance in animal sacrifice.  Rather, the government is demanding the employer provide for animal sacrifice, because of the belief that it is good and basic to the employee’s welfare.

That some people persist in this confusion is odd and would be amusing if it weren’t so troubling.  In the animal sacrifice example, Hobby Lobby is simply demurring, asking not to be required to participate in animal sacrifice due to religious objection.  That some employees might like this because it makes it easier to sacrifice animals, and that our government wishes to mandate the coverage exactly for that reason, does not make it less objectionable.  Surely our second commenter could throw his weight behind this; in fact, he already has.

Now, if we were to take these objections and strengthen them, what would happen?

In the first instance, our commenter might have used another “c” word, and said, “Is it right to impose on one worldview in favor of another?  Conditionally, yes.”

And our second commenter could have added, “For example, what if an employer was opposed to using animal organs in transplants?  Could he refuse a life-saving operation for one of his employee’s children?”  Modest claims are often stronger, since they are easier to support.

There are two answers ready to mind, and I don’t suppose that either is categorically wrong or right, but that they are both defensible in a secular society.

First, one might say that the right of conscience is to be protected, categorically.  That is, no matter what a person’s belief system is, government should not impose upon them to violate it.

Let’s use a stock objection to demonstrate:  One wants to know if an employer who is a Jehovah’s witness may refuse to provide coverage for blood transfusions, since he is morally opposed based on his religious beliefs.  The answer here would be yes, he may.

Another, more imaginative scenario:  Say an employer held the religious belief that all life is divine, and fit for use only after a ritual un-deification.  In principle, then, we could continue to source our medicines from plants and molds and such, though only with the widespread adoption of these ritual practices.  But the religion has not caught on, and so there are precious few un-deified resources available.  To be safe, the employer wants to refuse to cover any kind of medicine, to avoid this grievous sin.

According to our first answer, we would have to say yes, that this employer also has the right to refuse coverage, if we are to fully protect the right to conscience.

Questions for conversation:  What are the pros and cons of this position?  What values underlie your assessment of this position?  Are you implicitly putting more emphasis on liberty (right to conscience) or on positive rights (these things must be provided because I think they are good and basic)?  And what are the consequences of that emphasis?  Are your answers conducive to the authentic expression of any given worldview?

The second answer would be more challenging to implement, yet seems to garner greater favor with the Zeitgeist:  There is, at bottom, a program of health care which is truly basic, and ought to be universally provided.  In this case, the right of conscience is restrained, and it is the extent of that restraint which is up for debate.  We’ll consider this next time.

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