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Freedom of conscience at risk in USA

By Mishka Góra - posted Friday, 17 February 2012

There is a word for what is happening in the United States at the moment, and that word is totalitarianism. According to the Oxford Dictionary, totalitarianism is "a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state". The United States of America may not qualify as a fully-fledged totalitarian state, but it's certainly showing a totalitarian disposition.

The state of New Jersey, for example, seems to have decided that it has the right to dictate to religious organisations how to practice their religion.  Indeed, in a recent case it ruled that a United Methodist Church (UMC) retreat centre had violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) “when it refused to conduct a civil-union ceremony” for a lesbian couple.  Even though the judge acknowledged that it was “fundamentally a religious organization” and that the retreat centre was “used primarily as a venue for religious programming”, he said: “I do not believe that the facts pose a true question of religious freedom, but were they to, the matter would not be governed by the high bar of ‘strict scrutiny’, but by a much lower standard that tolerates some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals”.  

So, even though the UMC does not even recognise, let alone allow, marriage between people of the same sex, it has been told it should have accommodated a ceremony that is entirely incompatible with its beliefs.  I very much doubt they would have accommodated a wedding between two Satanists, whether they were heterosexual or homosexual, and this is what points to the UCM’s innocence.  Had the couple in question merely wanted to rent the venue for a party and been refused, then it would certainly appear to be a case of discrimination, but the issue was not who was renting the facility, it was what they wanted to do in it.  It would have been a violation of a place of worship.


Let's be clear, this isn't about homosexual rights, and it isn't even about 'gay marriage'. This is about the state interfering with the right of its citizens to practice their religion freely. The state should not have the legal right to punish those who refuse to alter their beliefs and violate their places of worship. I can’t speak for the Methodists, but in my experience as a Catholic it’s not as if homosexuals are unwelcome on church property. Quite to the contrary, I know of a number of homosexuals who worship in the Catholic Church, but they are expected to meet the prerequisites for any sacrament just like the next person. I have friends who are legally divorced and who cannot remarry in the Catholic Church – that is not discrimination, they're simply the rules. Likewise, I have been in the position where I was not allowed to receive communion, because I was yet to be confirmed into the Church – again, that is not discrimination. So, when a government tells the Church that it must allow homosexual marriages inside its churches, it is the government who is being discriminatory. It is the government who is imposing its totalitarian will on people of religious faith. It the government who is saying that the Church does not have the right to decide who gets married inside a Catholic church.

One may wonder where the legislators in New Jersey got the idea that they could dictate the practice of religion, but the events of the last week or so make it abundantly clear that this idea comes from the top. President Obama has issued a dictatorial mandate that forces the free provision of birth control and sterilisation procedures to all American women "no matter where they work". This contraceptive mandate doesn't protect women's health – if anything, the provision of free oral contraceptives and sterilisations encourages unprotected sex and exposure to STDs – and the only thing it prevents is pregnancy, which isn't a disease last time I checked.

What this mandate does is force employers to pay insurance companies for goods and services they do not wish to purchase. It legally compels everyone to pay for a government-sanctioned benefit, a benefit to which only women are entitled and which violates the consciences of a great many people, not just Catholics. It upholds the idea that every woman is entitled to free birth control and that someone else has to foot the bill. It is a totalitarian enforcement of an extreme feminism that sees children as something to be prevented at a woman's will and at someone else's expense.

Some will inevitably argue that there are protections in place for conscientious objections. After all, under the proposed 'accommodation' employers may not have to pay directly for contraceptives and merely pay insurance companies who will pay for the contraceptives, and ministers of religion don't have to perform the ceremonies themselves. Neither 'accommodation' improves the situation. Telling a Catholic priest he doesn't have to preside over a homosexual marriage just as long as he allows it in his church, is like saying that he doesn't have to commit a crime himself – he merely has to knowingly allow someone else to commit a crime in his own home. Telling a Catholic employer she doesn't have to provide abortifacient contraceptives to her employees but merely pay for someone else to provide them is akin to asking her to hire someone to do something wrong on her behalf. If a conscientious objector has the right to consider war a crime and refuse material cooperation in military matters, why aren't religious people and organisations entitled to conscientiously object in a similar manner?

The United States was founded by people who refused to be subservient to the state, who refused to abdicate their right to think for themselves. No state should ever force someone to host something they consider immoral on their private property or to pay for something they believe to wrong – to the contrary, we all have a moral obligation to oppose what we believe to be wrong, even if it means civil disobedience. As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained: "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law." Given that the President and his colleagues have so little respect for conscience, it remains to be seen how much Americans respect the law.

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About the Author

Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian writer specialising in war, conscience, international justice, and the former Yugoslavia. She is author of Fragments of War, an autobiographical novel about the 1990s conflict in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

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