Conscientious Objectors

The search for balance between individual conscience and the needs of the broader society have come into focus with some recent rules coming out of Washington and the reactions to them.

A basic question is involved in this search and it is sometimes obscured by emotion and politics. And that question is this: Does an individual have the right to conscientiously object to a policy that serves a greater public interest and therefore be exempt from serving that interest — because of religion?

In this case there is a related question: In matters of public policy, how free are you to impose your religion on me, a person of a different faith or of no faith at all?

In the days of the military draft, the ability of a person to refuse military service for religious or other reasons was a problem for draft boards whose job was to make sure that the greater public interest of national defense was met. Our only native-born Missouri President, Harry Truman –who had fought on the front lines in World War I– once wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt saying he considered conscientious objectors “just plain cowards or shirkers” who used religion as an excuse to avoid service. When Mrs. Roosevelt asked him to consider pardons for conscientious objectors after World War II, Truman wrote, “I’ll admit that it is rather difficult for me to look upon a conscientious objector with patience…While your four sons and my three nephews were risking their lives to save our government and the things for which we stand, these people were virtually shooting them in the back.”

Truman, however, had the distinction of presenting the first Medal of Honor given to a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss. He felt Doss was “all man.”

Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon or kill another person. He served as a medic in the Pacific and repeatedly risked his life to save wounded comrades, once carrying 75 wounded soldiers to safety while under fire. Although wounded, Doss got off a stretcher to help other wounded soldiers.

In 1946, Truman appointed an amnesty board to review cases of CO’s who were imprisoned afer refusing to serve.The commission reported ten percent of the violators of the draft laws deserved amnesty. At the end of 1947, Truman granted amnesty to 1,500 peopole and restored their political and civil rights.

When Mrs. Roosevelt asked him to consider pardons for the others, Truman wrote his “shirkers” letter.

Today we have a new kind of conscientious objector and the legislature is being asked to protect them as honorable and religious people. Unlike the military CO’s of selective service times who were seen by some as dishonorable draft-dodging back-shooters even if they defended their personal religious beliefs, today’s COs are being praised for placing their personal religious beliefs above broader public responsibility and bills are in the legislature that gives their positions preference.

The trigger for all of this was the Obama administration’s announcement that employers providing health insurance coverage to employees had to provide insurance coverage for birth control. Catholic lawmakers and religious groups strongly objected leading to some proposals in our legislature. A summary of Senator John Lamping’s bill says “no employee or any other person, employer, health plan provider or sponsor, health care provider or any other entity shall be compelled to obtain coverage for or provide coverage for abortion, contraception, or sterilization in a health plan if such items or procedures are contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of such employer, health care plan, provider or sponsor, or any other entity or person.”

The Obama administration announced a few days ago an “accommodation” that it hopes answers some of the concerns expressed, most prominently by the Catholic Church, and by Catholic lawmakers. The new plan requires the insurer, not the employer, to provide the coverage without cost for women employed by the entities that have a conscientious objection to birth control, sterilization, and abortions.

The state of Hawaii goes a little further. It allows an objecting employer to opt out of such coverage but it also says the employer will tell women workers where they can get coverage outside the health plan. Catholic Bishops oppose that provision, apparently because they don’t think objecting businesses should have to tell their employees where they can get insurance for something the church opposes.

The argument against the Obama administration policy has been called an attack on religious freedom and legislation filed in reaction to it is couched in religious freedom language–including Senator Roy Blunt’s bill that would overturn the administration policy. He calls his bill the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.”

Women’s health groups such as Planned Parenthood see the issue as a women’s health issue and the legislation in Jefferson City and in Washington as an attack on women’s health. These groups have cited a statistic showing 98% of Catholic women use or have used birth control, despite the official position of the church.

One sector that hasn’t been heard from is another part of the religious freedom issue—the issue of a state religious preference. Simply put, it is this: Is passing a law that protects the religious freedom of the Catholic Church in public policy matters — and there might be others although it is the Catholic Church that has been the most aggressive on pro-life issues — an infringement on the religious freedom of other faith communities or other religious people who do not share the strict pro-life doctrines of the Catholic Church?

For instance: If a Protestant woman working for a Catholic Hospital is denied birth control coverage in the employer-provided health insurance plan that in non-faith based situations offer such coverage, is that employee being discriminated against because of her religion? One answer might be that the woman doesn’t need to work for the Catholic hospital if she wants this coverage. But is that answer itself discriminatory?

At what point does your faith infringe on my faith? At what point does state protection of your faith limit protections I should have under the constitution for my faith? If a faith-based organization serves a secular clientele, how free is it to impose its religious standards on that general population.

Apart from the insurance issue — A pharmacist at the local drug store holds pro-life views. Can that person claim a conscientious objection to selling birth control medications or devices to the general public or even to people who are members of his or her same pro-life religious faith who use birth control? In refusing service to a customer, is that pharmacist engaged in discriminatory behavior based on religion? At what point does his or her religious objection interfere with my faith that does not adhere to that position? And in passing laws that protect those conscientious objections, is the state expressing a preference for one faith over another, something our founding fathers sought to forbid?

The broad issue is whether Catholic hospitals (and we do not intend to single out that particular faith but use it as an example only because, as noted earlier, that faith segment is the most visible in this issue) can expect protections or legal exceptions if they serve or employ people other than those who adhere to that faith’s doctrine. Can the pharmacist, in effect, impose his beliefs on others and be protected by the state if he or she does? In offering that protection, does the state favor one faith over another in public policy?

To what degree does offering state protection to faith-based organizations that deal with the general populace constitute a violation of the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof)? On one hand, does the protections sought under Senator Lamping’s bill establish state-sanctioned preferential treatment of a particular faith, in effect establishing a state-preferred religion that has superior privilege over others? And on the other hand, is failure to approve Lamping’s bill a violation of the “free exercise thereof” provision because it deprives those of differing faiths from something they are legally entitled to receive?

What should be the limits (are there any limits?) in writing faith-based standards into the general laws of the state? It is not a new question.

We watch the members of our legislature try to figure where laws should be enacted that draw lines between competing interests. Through the years it seems that nothing has consumed more time than determining what the lines should be on how much religion should influence broad social policy.

Matters of conscience are often difficult to deal with, whether in time of war or in the halls of political policy. They are difficult because they are human. And that’s why the people we elect do not have simple jobs to carry out. It’s why it is important that reporters be the public’s eyes and ears as those decisions are shaped.

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