Freedom of Conscience in the 21st Century

Alan Sears of Alliance Defending Freedom discusses the global attack on conscience rights.

Alan Sears
Alan Sears (photo: CNA/Alliance Defending Freedom)

VATICAN CITY — Defending the right of conscience is one of the most pressing challenges in the world today, and action needs to be taken now to ensure it is protected.

This is according to Alan Sears, president, CEO and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry for religious freedom based in the United States.

Speaking to the Register in Rome recently, Sears explained the totalitarianism behind the attacks on conscience rights, how tolerance for differing opinions has diminished and how he nevertheless detects a shift in public opinion toward affirming marriage.


What are the most pressing challenges you’re seeing at Alliance Defending Freedom?

Worldwide, the most pressing challenge is defending the right of conscience. In the United States, we’re seeing on many, many fronts, but most particularly relating to right to life and marriage, challenges relating to conscience. To speak of a few in the United States, one of those things relates to people in professional life, people involved in creative artistic services that are being targeted to provide those services in support of events and activities that violate their most basic consciences. That would include the photographers, the florists, the cake artists. … There’s a distinction between selling this and selling generic services.

We have a florist client in Washington state. She’s a great-grandmother. She knew and served this man who engages in homosexual behavior for 10 years, caring for him deeply. But when he came to her and said: “I want you to design my wedding, and I want you to do all the floral work,” she prayed; she sought counsel. Unlike people who feel their conscience is just a matter of how they feel in the morning when they get out of bed, she said: “I can’t violate my conscience — I don’t have the right to violate the teaching and understanding of marriage.” She lovingly explained this to the client, saying she’d sell him any flowers he wanted generically, but she could not participate in the creative artistry necessary to acknowledge an attempt to redefine marriage. And this is consistent across the board with these clients, who, in some cases, are clearly being targeted.


How much of the problem is due to those who support and promote homosexual rights and are desperately seeking validity by eliminating any kind of opposition?

One of the things we see all the time is an attempt to silence any opposition. Anyone who upholds traditional understandings of marriage, of sexual fidelity, of the complementarity of man and woman [is opposed in society]. Clearly, there are those who would like to outlaw this, and this is not by any means an exaggeration. There are those who would like to outlaw those who preach from their pulpits that homosexuality is a sin.

I wrote a book some years ago called The Homosexual Agenda. The subtitle was “Principle Threat to Religious Freedom in America Today.” This was only relating to activity in the United States at the time, but, now, we’ve moved into this campaign, [to] limit speech and to cause consequences to those who dissent from the demands of this agenda.


Would you say that this underlying sense, that this is wrong, is fueling this agenda?

I’m not going to suggest that everyone who engages in homosexual behavior is a totalitarian, but there are those who are advocating that movement who have absolute totalitarian instincts. They want punishment for those who will not support and agree with their view. After this story is published in the Register, there’ll be more fire directed at me and Alliance Defending Freedom. Every time that our organization successfully represents someone, more fire is poured out: Twitter campaigns, Facebook attacks — all these kind of things, which clearly indicate people are interested in having an open market of ideas and open discussion, but they want to punish, silence and stigmatize all of those who disagree. … I use a phrase: The pretense of tolerance is over.

For years, there was a demand that we have tolerance, but, now, it’s completely flipped: that we will not tolerate anyone with whom we disagree. … We see, in case after case, the real-life experience where those who are saying, "We have to be open to ideas" actually want to punish ideas that don’t agree with theirs.


Do you, in any case, see a shift in public opinion towards an improvement in this debate?

Actually, it’s interesting: Courts have begun to make this incredible shift [towards affirming marriage]. Every state where people have had a chance to make a decision, they’ve said: “We want to protect marriage.” The interesting thing, which many people don’t realize, is that the Republican Party came into being to protect marriage. When the Republican Party was formed, the platform was to abolish the last two relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery. And when Lincoln became president, these were hot issues. With the Civil War coming along, the marriage issue got put by the wayside, but Lincoln actually opposed Utah becoming a state because he was concerned about the possibility that polygamy could spread. When the state of Arizona came into the United States, it prohibited polygamy forever. As a condition for becoming a state, Congress required that it prohibit this ever being revisited.

So this isn’t like a new problem, and the polygamy fight was fought over a period of about 40 years before it was finally resolved. So if you use the analogy, we’re at the early stages of a legal fight.


How can Catholics do more to step up to the plate and defend conscience rights?

There is so much that Catholics can do. One of the most inspiring talks at the Humanum colloquium [held in Rome in November on the complementarity of man and woman in marriage] was given by Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California. He reported that he has just baptized his 41,000th adult convert. Wow. But he gave that number as an explanation that so many people are confused. They think that one needs to back away from doctrine and theology in order to be popular and grow churches, and he made the point that churches that back away from doctrine and theology seem to disappear.

In his faith tradition, he has tried to stay pure and faithful to his doctrine and theology, and he’s now baptized his 41,000th convert. The point of this is that he says: "Stay faithful; don’t back down." And he gave a delightful talk including six ways every church can celebrate marriage.

I was blessed to be at the [weekly general] audience yesterday; and after the Holy Father did his beautiful visits that he does every time with those with physical limitations, with disabilities and those in wheelchairs — which is such a visible witness — then he goes back to the top and greets the married couples, women in their wedding dresses, young men in their best suits, tuxedos; and this is a sermon. It’s one of the things Rick Warren said: The Church should celebrate marriage; [show] the joy, the beauty of God’s plan for marriage. There are so many of us.

I love what the Holy Father said: that the Church is like a field hospital. There are so many of us who have seen in our lives those things that are not the ideal. We’ve experienced pain, brokenness, but none of us want less than the best. So one of the most exciting things that every local parish can do, every priest, every bishop can do, is lift up the idea and help those who aspire to the ideal to find it. This doesn’t mean we in any way disparage those who are caught up in circumstances less than the best and those who’ve experienced the pain of divorce, death or separation. But why not hold up the best? What do we want for our children? We want the very best schools. We want the very best opportunities. Why not that for their life? And marriage is the single best item for success and health that there is.


What are your hopes, looking to the future?

We’re at a crossroads. When we look back at history, we see turning points in every culture, every society, and we’re at a turning point on several of these issues. As I say, the foremost issue is right of conscience, but on marriage as well. It really is up to people of faith, if we are going to stand for our faith or step aside and allow our faith to be suppressed and undermined by law, to be made less than fully invested citizens.

I’ve read, studied and often thought about the late Dr. Martin Luther King and the letter he wrote from Birmingham jail. There was a question within the civil-rights movement of the United States. The question was: When do we stand? When do we sit back? Is this a time to wait, wait politely in silence? Or is this a time to act?

And Dr. King recognized that some injustice is so grave that there is no time to waste. This is where the Judeo-Christian community — we have many friends and brothers and sisters outside our own faith tradition — faces great persecution if this is allowed to continue. So this is the time for people to stand united, one with another. And when they hear about things like the Mozilla CEO, when they hear about the florist, photographer, the cake baker, the bed-and-breakfast person [being denied conscience rights], this is the time people should rally.

I said when this cake incident happened: Everyone should go and buy everything this guy can make and sell; make him rich, in a show of solidarity. It would be a very simple act, but so often, we sit back. I won’t predict the future, but it’s in the hands of every single believer; and we will make the choice of what the future will be for our children by what we do now. As Dr. King said: There’s no time to waste.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.