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6a00d834515c5469e201901cbc5f12970b-500wiI believe the government should preserve and protect an individual’s freedom of conscience and seek to never violate it.

I love that the U.S. does not force the Amish to pay for social security. We allow these people to continue a way of life separate from the rest of society. I don’t agree with the choices of the Amish, but I want them to be able to live according to the freedom of their conscience.

Conscience is a powerful thing. Who can forget the immortal words of Martin Luther, standing up against an oppressive church tribunal?

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”

But limitations are slowly encroaching on an individual’s freedom of conscience today in various and complicated ways.

The Right to Refrain

A troubling decision by the Supreme Court in New Mexico last August indicated that an individual’s right of conscience to refrain from participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony must give way to the rights of the couple who asked for their services. “There is a price we all have to pay in our civic life,” said the judge. I disagree. I don’t want anyone to have to pay the price of violating their conscience.

Imagine this scenario. A lesbian couple own a small business that makes signs. One of the Westboro cult members comes in and tells them they will soon be protesting another military funeral. They ask for signs that demean American soldiers, plus a few that say “God hates fags” thrown in for good measure. The lesbian couple refuses. They cannot in good conscience create signs that go against their deeply held convictions.

If this were to happen, I’d side with the lesbian couple. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.

It’s not that the couple would be denying the Westboro folks service simply for being religious. (If they were to ask for a simple sign of “Happy birthday” for a granddaughter, for example, they would do it in a heartbeat.) It’s that the lesbian couple disagrees at a fundamental level with the message being communicated by the signs. I believe they should have the right to refrain.

I hope that same couple would stand up for the rights of the Christian photographer or baker who can’t in good conscience participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, the photographer who disagrees at a fundamental level with the message that wedding communicates.

The HHS Mandate

It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court does with the recent challenge regarding the HHS Mandate – that for-profit corporations must pay for employees’ birth control.

Should Catholic business owners who do not believe in the morality of birth control be forced to purchase a product they believe to be wrong? I say no. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.

Even though I do not have a moral problem with birth control and my conscience would not be affected, I would not want my Catholic neighbor’s conscience to be violated. I would stand up for freedom of conscience.

Should the owners of Hobby Lobby be forced to pay for their employees’ abortifacient drugs? I say no. Why? Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.

But don’t our taxes go to all sorts of things we disagree with? Drone strikes, Planned Parenthood, wasteful spending, etc. Yes, they do. But there is a difference between the government collecting taxes (“Render to Caesar”) and the government forcing a business owner to make a purchase of a product.

The question is not: Will employers pay taxes? The question here is, Will the government force employers to make a purchase of something that goes against their conscience?

Our Neighbor’s Conscience

Freedom of conscience is not inviolable or a trump card in every situation where a dispute arises. Still, one of the ways we navigate the complexity of living in a democratic republic is by limiting the use of governmental force whenever possible. It’s one thing to stand up for your own deep convictions. It’s an even better thing to stand up for the right of someone else’s deeply held convictions.

Freedom of conscience is a beautiful thing.

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9 thoughts on “Freedom of Conscience is a Beautiful Thing”

  1. Christiane says:

    Republicans have said that a ‘corporation IS a person’, but it is not.
    The benefits that an employee earns are THEIRS, not their employers, so that is another consideration that I think the law may take into account.
    As for the conscience of people like the Hobby Lobby owners, I could never see these people of faith going against their consciences, but if these owners are making a profit from the labors of their employees, the owners have entered into a situation where private conscience might have to lead them to give up their business altogether. I can see that happening.
    I don’t know how the courts will resolve this puzzle, but Republicans have been very down on labor and on benefits for workers, especially equal pay for women, which is something that the conservative right-wing Christian must own to be true,
    so in all honesty, the treatment of women employees by conservative Christian profit-making business owners IS going to be controversial and under the watchful eye of the country and the courts.

    Poor women, many of whom are single parents, cannot be placed into a category where they are treated differently from other employees in our nation. This is an important consideration.

    some thoughts

  2. Miss August says:

    Having observed similar trends, where this is all headed is very disturbing to say the least. Will men of the clergy one day come under fire for refusing to officiate same sex marriages? One would think that living in a democratic state means that I can start a business (from my own mental, physical and financial resources) and run it as I please as long as I don’t hurt others. But to force me to go against personal fundamental beliefs just so I can stay in business, I don’t how else to spell persecution.
    Again, where we appear headed to is disturbing.

  3. K.W. Leslie says:

    Now, imagine this scenario. A mixed-race couple wishes to rent an apartment in a building. The owner refuses to do so: He firmly and deeply believes race-mixing is wrong and immoral, and cannot abide them living in his building.

    I know; you said freedom of conscience is neither inviolable nor a trump card. But how far can it go?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      That’s a great question. Here’s another conundrum… A small Christian-owned printing company has a customer who wants to print a magazine that has pornographic images in it. The printer politely refuses. Should he / she be forced to violate conscience and print pornography? Or should the customer look elsewhere for a printer?

      I think there needs to be a distinction between a business decision that furthers and approves something, and a business decision that merely serves an individual. Renting apartment space seems to be a different scenario than, say, creating offensive signs for Westboro members, or supporting a same-sex marriage ceremony through art (photography, etc.).

      1. Phil says:

        Would you really support an atheist printer who refuses to print welcome flyers for a new church?

        My guess is that you would view it as unlawful discrimination.

      2. Simon says:

        I can’t see any meaningful difference in the examples that have been sighted.

        I think, rather, the root problem is radical individualism. Perhaps evangelicals are tyring to have their “freedom of conscience” cake and eat it too? I believe there isn’t too much difference between the individualism of evangelical Christianity and that of secularism – indeed Protestant may have inadvertently created secularism – see “The Unintended Reformation” by Brad Gregory. There is no principled differences, only differences on which issues to apply individual freedom to.

  4. Phil says:

    It seems to me that you are stating it is ok to allow atheists to deny lots of services to Christians.

  5. John says:

    I think that’s exactly what he’s saying, Phil. People have the right to be jerks, up to a point. A Christian could protest the atheist’s discriminatory policy, advise others not to print there, etc., but at the end of the day, they can also take their business elsewhere.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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