By Jason Hines –

An Illinois appellate court rendered an interesting decision last week.[1] The court upheld a lower court ruling that Illinois pharmacists do not have to sell "Plan B" pills to customers if they have religious objections to the use of the product. "Plan B" is the brand name of a drug that can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sexual activity. The court made this ruling based on the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, and a lawyer at the Becket Fund called the decision "a great victory for religious freedom." While I am a staunch supporter of the right of conscience, I also believe that the right of conscience has limits, and those limits have been crossed by this decision. Two aspects of this decision trouble me. First, the laws on which the decision is based, and second, the idea behind the legislation itself are problematic and bring up serious questions of the reach and scope of "religious liberty."

Doctor and patient discuss contraceptionThe Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act is a very broad piece of legislation that protects the right of conscience of those who would like to refuse service of medical procedures based on their closely held beliefs. The Act applies to "any phase of patient care," is applicable to almost any physician health care personnel, or healthcare facility. Repeatedly the statute absolves the healthcare professional of the "duty to perform, assist, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer or participate in any way in any form of medical practice or health care service that is contrary to his or her conscience." Furthermore the Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate in hiring or promotion based on the physician's conscientious refusal to perform medical services contrary to his or her conscience. Based on the law as stated here, the decision by the Illinois appellate court was correct. However, there seem to be two huge problems with the law itself. First, what do we do when the conscientious objection is to service itself? Under this law, a more than credible argument can be made that if I have a conscientious objection (based in my religion or otherwise) to providing basic medical care for Black people, then I don't have to provide that service.[2] If that is too far-fetched a more apropos example is a homosexual HIV patient. If homosexual conduct is against my religious beliefs, I can now refuse to serve or even recommend services to a segment of the country that would desperately need help.[3] Second, because of the broad discriminatory protections of the law, the odd situation is created where a doctor who had religious objections to performing abortions would have to be hired by an abortion clinic, because that clinic would not be allowed to "discriminate" based on the religious beliefs of the physician.

Even more distressing than the overreach of this law is the concept of religious liberty that undergirds it. This is another example of something in religious liberty that I have termed "selfish freedom."[4] Whenever their right of conscience runs counter to someone else, many conservatives will choose their right to liberty over the right that equally belongs to the other person. In these close cases, those who believe in this "selfish freedom" believe that their right of conscience should control the ability of another person to exercise their conscience simply because they are spiritually offended by the other person's lifestyle or actions. I believe that this type of selfish freedom is antithetical to the Christian ethos. God is a god of freedom, who does not want us to do the right thing because someone else won't support our own decision, or because we are compelled by law to do so. Instead, we are to come to an understanding of and willingness to do God's will simply because we choose to.

It seems that conservative Christianity has forgotten the goal of this great spiritual movement. The goal of Christianity is not to ensure that everyone does the right thing. Rather, our mission as Christians is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others and to work with the Spirit in making disciples. This is not accomplished by making sure that pharmacists can refuse to sell "Plan B" pills or ensuring that homosexuals do not receive the civil benefits of marriage. No young woman who is refused a "Plan B" pill will be drawn closer to Christ because of it. We achieve nothing by refusing her right of conscience, except to make our own conscience feel better. We could accomplish so much more if we spent our energies on really trying to understand people and telling them about a God who can change their heart instead of trying to force a change in people's actions. We serve a God who gave up everything for us so that we could choose to live His way, and yet it seems that we are all too willing to take that choice from others.

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[1] The court opinion for this case has not been released at this time.

[2] While this situation would probably never occur, I cannot find anything in the law that would make it illegal to have this type of religiously based, racist objection to providing medical services.

[3] It is also important to note that in certain segments of the country medical services are not readily available. Therefore, this problem is not necessarily solved by saying they could get services from somewhere else.

[4] I also made this argument in reference to the HHS contraception mandate.

 

(Illustration: iStockPhoto.com)

 

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