Monday’s Mtg: “Conscience Clauses:” Faith and Obeying the Law

When does having a strong moral objection to the law allow you to refuse to obey it?  Not very often – try it next time you’re stopped for speeding.  But, “conscience clauses,” provisions in law that allow people to refuse to obey it if they have a religious objection, have been around for years.  This is as we’d expect in a religious country founded on secular governing principles.  But, conscience clauses are making a big comeback, thanks to conservatives.  GOP-controlled states are stampeding to pass laws that carve out religious objection exceptions to laws concerning contraception access, GLBT equality, and other areas where the religious right is losing the broader culture war argument.

This topic has been in the news a lot lately.  Some employers have sued over the Obamacare requirement that their health plans cover contraception.  Some religious employers already are exempt from the requirement, but not enough are to please many conservatives.  I’ll explain what’s going on.  But, just being in the news is not enough to merit being a weekly topic in our group.  I think conscience clauses have a bigger importance than just how they relate to Obamacare implementation.  I believe that the idea that people should be exempt from some requirements of laws they don’t like  is edging towards becoming a core belief of modern conservatism.  To me, this idea that some duties of citizenship are kind of, well, voluntary, is a real slippery slope.  That’s why I wanted conscience clauses on our schedule.

On Monday, I’ll open by explaining (1) what conscience clauses are and their history; and (2) the latest developments in this area (it’s not just Obamacare).  Then, I’d like us to discuss whether today’s conservatives really are trying to redefine the notion of citizens’ responsibilities, or if it’s just the old federalism philosophy being dusted off for an era when they don’t control the national government.



  1. What is a conscience clause?  What is the history of this legal idea and its justification?
  2. What is the latest in the fight over conscience clauses?  What is causing the renewal of interest in them?  Is it just Obamacare and contraception, or is something else going on?  Will the courts side with conservatives on this?
  3. More broadly, do conservatives view the duties of a citizen to obey the law and contribute to the well-being of their fellow citizens differently than do liberals?  Are conscience clauses a part of this, or are they just a sui generis thing related to reproductive issues?
  4. Is there common ground to be found on any of this?




2 responses

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    One important point here: Are these moral principles to apply to oneself, or to other people?

    Religionists often argue that requiring them to obey the law violates their religious principles. To this there are two answers. First, the Supreme Court has consistently held that religion is not an excuse or pretext to violate the law.

    Second, and more generally, no one has ever argued that, for example, Catholics should be made to have abortions or practice birth control. For Catholics, the teachings of Holy Father are infallible, and they have to obey. (But why would anyone be a Catholic? I have no answer).
    However, they want to go beyond this, and have Holy Father’s teachings apply to everyone, in secular law.

    This is what I find to be incomprehensible and outrageous.

  2. Another big issue with conscience clauses has to do with vaccinations. See this Slate article. It’s certainly affecting our public health.

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