Conscience and Religious Liberty
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2008

The need to protect religious liberty and rights of conscience from government intrusion has become a pressing issue for state Catholic conferences. For years, abortion proponents have called for mandating Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, provide contraceptives on demand, perform sterilization, and dispense the “morning after pill.” Adoption agencies have faced pressure to provide services to same-sex couples. Some states require Catholic employers to include contraceptives in employee health plans.
These attempts to erode religious liberties involve government action through laws or regulations. To some extent, therefore, the Constitution provides some protection.

The Constitution, however, only protects a person from improper government action. It does not protect someone from private action, such as when private groups use public pressure to get a person or entity to change its policies. That there seems to exist more public acceptance of demanding a religious person or institution to change its policies in contradiction to their religious beliefs should give us reason to worry.

Take, for example, a recent case involving the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The university’s law school, as part of its effort to instill a Catholic sense of community and solidarity in its students, requires every student to complete a public service project. A student tried to fulfill that requirement by volunteering at a Planned Parenthood site. The dean decided that such service could not count as the student’s public service since Planned Parenthood’s work is “fundamentally at odds with a core value of the Catholic Church.” The story, as is often the case today, circulated on numerous web and blog sites, in addition to the traditional local newspapers.

Some of the negative reactions to the school’s position revealed confusion about Planned Parenthood and what it does. Simply put, these writers were ignorant of how Planned Parenthood’s work is in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching. More disconcerting, however, were those who thought that the school had no right to restrict where the student conducted her public service. To many, the university’s Catholicity should not extend beyond some curriculum and upper faculty choices. A commonly expressed argument was that since school accepted the student’s tuition and accepted non-Catholic students, the university had no business dictating what was a proper form of public service. Glaringly absent from these comments was any appreciation of the fact that University of St. Thomas is a private, religious institution and as such has every right to decide what is or what is not consistent with it’s religious beliefs.

Another example: A private nursing home has a privately funded chapel dedicated for Christian services. When a resident who adhered to a non-Christian faith died, the facility decided it could not allow a service for the resident in the chapel, since having a non-Christian service would have been contrary to the facility’s mission and the purpose of the chapel.

The story became public when upset friends of the deceased person wrote letters to the local newspaper. The writers accused the nursing home of practicing discrimination and of forfeiting its religious rights when it accepted the resident’s money. It did not matter to these critics of the nursing home that payment wasfor the purpose of providing health and residential care, not post-death religious services.

The charge of discrimination is frequently made in these cases. “Discrimination,” with its connection to animosity-driven injustices, particularly those based on race and gender, immediately evokes negative feelings. We have, however, gone too far in that regard. There exists wrongful discrimination and acceptable discrimination. Practically every law discriminates, in that it distinguishes or differentiates between actions and classes of persons.

The right to discriminate - that is, to differentiate, is at the heart of religious liberty. Every religion, by its nature, differentiates between what is right and what is wrong, what is proper and what is improper, what is desirable and what is undesirable. Every religion also, in various degrees and actions, distinguishes between who is “in” and who is “out.”

Claiming that no church should discriminate may sound appealing at first. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, such an attitude means the elimination of religious liberty and ultimately religion itself.