Conscience Exemption for Me but Not for Thee

April 8 issue column on the fight for religious freedom in America.

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 President Obama’s mandate compelling Catholic institutions to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals has drawn far greater support from the Democratic Party leadership (and those who agree with its party platform) than I would have expected, given the obvious challenge it poses to First Amendment rights.

It is truly shocking to watch elected officials like the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi (a self-identified Catholic), Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Maxine Waters and Sen. Frank Lautenberg back this policy.

It is alarming to watch them aggressively disregard or deny millions of religious believers a broad religious exemption that will shield them from a law that forces them to violate their consciences. Waters actually characterized opponents of the mandate as “demons.”

Well, I warn them and their constituents: Do they really want to go down this road of banning conscience exemptions?

Think about it. How many of them embrace the right of conscientious objection when it comes to war?

During times of mandatory military service, conscientious objection is a true saving grace. If one is convinced, based on one’s faith in particular, that a war is wrong, he or she has the option to not participate.

I could fill this page with the words of Catholic monks and priests who publicly defended that right during the Vietnam War, from Thomas Merton to the Berrigan brothers. They were heroes for taking their courageous and correct stand.

Those who self-identify as liberals need to pause to realize that the Catholic Church, as an institution, has consistently advocated this right:

The Second Vatican Council issued a Declaration on Religious Freedom, affirming that Catholics are first duty-bound to faithfully follow their consciences, not the dictates of a government, and that no person should be “forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.”

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World states that governments cannot compel a citizen to engage in military service if that person is convinced that physical combat is sinful. The Church condemns “blind obedience” to unjust regimes that commit unjust actions.

Since the Second Vatican Council, popes, bishops and Catholic theologians have repeatedly reaffirmed these positions. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. bishops issued major documents supporting both universal and selective conscientious objection.

On a related point — which, again, so-called liberals will applaud — the Church has demanded humane treatment for wartime noncombatants, the wounded and POWs. The Catechism states this explicitly.

Generally speaking, the Catechism proclaims, “Citizens are obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order.” Quoting the New Testament (Acts 5:29), the Catechism states: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Indeed, though I’ve cited Catholic teaching, millions of non-Catholic Christians follow these principles when it comes to war, from Quakers to the Amish to Mennonites. And huge numbers of secular nonbelievers adamantly endorse these teachings on conscience and war.

Conscientious objection is a precious right in this nation. It must remain so.

Have “abortion rights” become so sacred to millions of people that they are willing to sacrifice conscience exemptions at the altar of Roe v. Wade? Do they really want to head down this road?

I suggest they stop and think hard about what they’re advocating.

Unfortunately, modern, secular “progressives” are so dedicated to “women’s reproductive rights” that they will happily ignore the inconsistencies in their position, accepting, or at least tolerating, a double standard.

They’ll smile and take their wartime conscientious objection — trumpeting the First Amendment’s freedom of religion — and then on a dime deny conscience exemptions for people of faith on abortion policy.

Nat Hentoff, the well-known “pro-life liberal,” had a saying about liberals and their inconsistency on free speech: “Free speech for me but not for thee.” It looks like they’re demanding the same double standard for conscience protection: “Conscience exemption for me but not for thee.”

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.
His books include
The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press) and

Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.