Discrimination or Religious Freedom?

03-02-2014Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

When it comes to an issue such as AZ Senate Bill 1062 is trying to deal with, I suggest both sides take a deep breath and give some serious consideration to the issue. Remember it cuts both ways: a Christian not wanting to cater a same-sex wedding can easily be a gay couple not wanting to cater a White Supremist anti-gay, anti-black workshop. Should they be compelled to do so? The thought behind this legislation is to provide legal protections for conscientious objectors. Without some protection the long tradition of carving out a space for moral or religious objections can easily go by the wayside and yet with this legislation we run the risk of permitting lots of unintended forms of discrimination and a greater societal divisiveness.

The challenge in marking out what can legitimately be considered a refusal on moral grounds and when does it become wrongful discrimination, is where do we draw the line? Whether or not that can be carefully delineated in our legal code is something for legal minds to figure out. But for our purposes, how can we be sure we are upholding a moral principle and not discriminating based on persons? And how can we protect ourselves from malicious lawsuits whose only purpose is to punish someone for their beliefs?

A good starting point is our almost universally accepted standard that discrimination based on race/ethnicity, biological gender or religion is unacceptable. Once you start to add categories to that you step into serious conflicts. As of now our society has not enshrined sexual orientation as one of those categories. If we do that will certainly open the door to allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs.

When it comes to conscientious objections it is important to note that what is being objected to is a procedure or action or behavior and NOT a person. So for instance, if an obstetrician is asked to perform an abortion and refuses based on his moral beliefs, he is objecting not to the patient but to the procedure. It's not the person he finds objectionable but the moral quality of the procedure. That's a big distinction. That is where the line should be drawn.

Even still things can get messy. Suppose the licensing organization says to the physician as a condition of your license you must perform abortions, what choice then does he have? The physician might then have to consider not being a physician rather than violate his conscience. On the other hand by requiring a physician to perform abortions society has effectively said that people whose religious faith opposes abortion cannot be physicians. Is that liberty? Is that the only solution once a person is disallowed to apply their moral principles to their occupation? So the question is how do you construct a system where in this case, a physician's moral beliefs can be respected and he can still conduct business as a physician without being held liable for discrimination?

As we deal with this thorny issue of respecting someone's moral or religious beliefs and giving them the room to live them out including in their business conduct while avoiding invidious discrimination we have to have clear and well-defined set of procedures that we can legitimately and legally object to being compelled to perform. This means that whether from a religious perspective or a moral perspective we have to be clear about what we are willing to do and not do and what price we are willing to pay for taking a moral stand.

The Catholic Church has a long history of moral reasoning because we understand that the choices before us can make us better or worse individuals. Likewise a society's choice will either strengthen it or undermine its cohesiveness. One of our key moral principles is that we are required to do the good, when that is not possible we are to avoid evil and when that is not even possible we are to avoid the greater evil. What would that look like for a baker who objects to same-sex marriage and is asked to make a cake for one?

The first right in the Bill of Rights is religious freedom and at the same time we have a history of not shunning discrimination in our laws. Our conception of religious freedom is wide and deep. In fact our country was founded on the insistence that one should have the liberty to practice one's faith without state interference. At the same time we have also learned that living together means making certain reasonable accommodations. That needs to happen in this situation on both sides. What that looks like and how it can be done while respecting each other as persons and respecting each other's moral standards requires lots of care, thought and discussion.

Since we as a country no longer share a common morality based on biblical values finding our way through this sort of problem is very difficult. It can't be done by who shouts the loudest. Still we must try.

Love, Fr. John B.

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