Conscience And The Workplace

Religious Claims Must Not Infringe On The Rights Of Others

The right to invoke conscience on religious grounds has a long history in the United States. During the Revolutionary War, Quakers who refused to bear arms assisted in other ways, such as raising money and working in field hospitals.


In the modern era, conscience-based claims were extended to the non-religious as well. During the Vietnam War, those who opposed war on deeply held moral grounds were granted deferments alongside the religious.


But just because conscience claims are familiar, it does not follow that all are equally valid. Recently, Religious Right groups have been invoking conscience in ways that infringe on the rights of others.


Some “pro-life” pharmacists refuse to provide “morning after” pills or even birth control. In Denton, Texas, in 2004, a rape victim trying to fill a prescription for emergency contraceptives was turned away by two pharmacists.


In another case, a state-employed nurse told an AIDS patient and his partner that God “doesn’t like the homosexual lifestyle” and urged them to pray for salvation.


These claims of conscience raise troubling concerns. They are efforts by individuals in positions of some power (even if only temporary) to force their religious views onto the unwilling.


Some states are moving to block bogus conscience claims. In Washington state, officials promulgated a new regulation requiring pharmacies to make “morning after” pills available. The regulation recently survived a Religious Right-led legal attack.


Unfortunately, proposed legislation that has been floating around in Washington, D.C., for years could make things worse. Many analysts believe that overly broad versions of the so-called Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) would make it easy for those claiming conscience to prevail – even when their actions trample on the rights of others.


There is a balance to be struck here, but the last version of WRFA we saw in Congress didn’t get it right. No measure has been introduced yet this session but behind-the-scenes negotiations are under way, and the situation bears close scrutiny.


Claims of conscience may sound high minded, but increasingly they are being used by the Religious Right as an excuse to force a narrow version of religion on everyone else. Fedral and state officials should tread carefully and not exacerbate the problem with ill-considered laws and proposals.