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'Broader lens' urged for conscience rights issue than marriage debate


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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The issue of conscience rights should be examined "with a much broader lens" than just the marriage debate, said a speaker at a panel discussion regarding religious liberty legislation in light of same-sex marriage.

Hosted in Washington by the Brookings Institution, the discussion, focused on legislation passed by the Utah Legislature -- and now signed into law by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert -- that is designed to accommodate proponents of same-sex marriage, while protecting the freedoms of conscience and religion of those who oppose it.

"We can even, in this arena, get too focused on the issue of gay marriage or gay rights and religious liberty when there are other models from other contexts as well," said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

He made the comments when the discussion shifted to the Utah legislation's protections for law clerks whose faith will not allow them to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Citing laws that protect medical professionals and pharmacists who refuse to participate in abortions or the practice of euthanasia based on their religious beliefs, Diament said, "There is an absolute right in the state of Washington for a pharmacist to refuse to administer an assisted suicide prescription ... and there's no debate about it whatsoever."

As for the necessity of conscience protections that respect religious beliefs within laws, Diament added that "no piece of legislation is going to change theological doctrines held by religious denominations that go back millennia."

Another speaker, Robin Fretwell Wilson, law professor and director of the Program in Family Law and Policy at the University of Illinois, discussed the broad scope of religious freedom protections outside of the marriage debate.

"There are good reasons to have Religious Freedom Restoration acts that have nothing to do with gay people at all," she told the audience. Wilson recounted the case of Mitchell County v. Zimmerman, which, on the grounds of religious freedom, allowed Mennonites of Iowa to continue to use a tractor with steel wheels on public roads, despite state traffic laws to the contrary. The Mennonite religion does not allow its members to drive tractors unless they have such wheels.

"Should we not try to have some room (for Mennonites) ... without the government stepping on them?" Wilson asked.

Several members of Congress also have called for more conscience protections at the federal level. At a speaking event in January, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, discussed conscience protections for religious and other adoption agencies, which is the aim of the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, known as H.R. 5825.

The bill would prohibit the federal government, and any state that receives federal funding for any program providing child welfare services, from "discriminating or taking an adverse action against a child welfare service provider that declines" to provide services that contradict their moral beliefs.

"Because of our religious beliefs, we are being told that we cannot participate" in providing services, said Kelly, a Catholic, at the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit. "I don't believe that San Francisco, Illinois or Washington, D.C., has the right to tell your organization that you cannot participate in this. ... Nobody is going to exclude us."

The act is meant to protect the rights of institutions such as Catholic adoption agencies that would be forced to either provide adoption services that conflict with their moral views or close their doors, as was the case for agencies in Massachusetts and California in 2006 and Illinois in 2011.

Last July, the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said they supported the bill: San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Protections of moral conscience are not only an issue for people of faith.

At a fall 2011 seminar at Georgetown University, visiting professor Thomas F. Farr said that "the nonreligious content of conscience deserves protection, so long as it is ordered to the truth about man and society, which is to say that conscience drives action that accords with natural reason."

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