Recent legislation and legal skirmishes have highlighted discussion and debate on freedom of conscience.
Our nation struggles to clarify this freedom’s role and prominence in society, and specifically, within the context of gay marriage laws, the mandate to require most private insurers to cover contraceptives, and EHB 1044, a Washington state bill that allegedly requires insurance carriers to cover abortion if also providing maternity care coverage.
Freedom of conscience is one of the few characteristics that separate us from the beasts. Our Founding Fathers recognized this fundamental human right by demanding the derivative rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The implied reference to freedom of conscience reveals itself when one poses the question: Whose definition of life, liberty, and happiness? It seems this highly personal question can only be answered in a personal way — and only then when one has the freedom to consider one’s own dreams and expectations.
Unfortunately, the pages of history brim with dictators and tyrants who had no interest in individuals defining their own happiness. In recent history, Adolph Hitler sought to control the individual conscience in order to create a national conscience — one that favored his own goals, one that could justify genocide. He repressed and ultimately persecuted religious organizations and other enemies, pushing them aside to feed the populous his own message without pesky competition.
Unfortunately, Joseph Stalin gave Hitler a run for his money as “human monster” of the 20th century, and we've struggled with many wannabes to the present.
Fortunately, these extreme lessons of history do not yet find parallels in the United States. But, as a Chinese proverb reminds us, “the longest journey starts with a single step.” Certainly, the bad actors of the past did not convince their followers to commit overnight. There had to be a first step. And that first step most certainly required individuals to exercise their freedom of conscience, if only for the last time.
Today, we frequently rail against any special interest trying to force its beliefs on others, though mainly when the “others” are us. Some complain the most about religious groups, but that superficial criticism ignores the host of other groups and businesses doing the same, including the groups to which the complainers belong.
Who but the individual can exercise his or her freedom of conscience? Likewise, one must never surrender their freedom of conscience to the state, a special interest or even an individual, no matter how trusted. Doing so would leave one a domesticated animal, led by a leash away from a life, liberty and happiness uniquely their own.
Nor should we allow any individual or group to force their beliefs on others. Otherwise, we cross the ultimate tyrannical line and procure only misery and despair, as history teaches.
Certainly, no religious organization, allegedly seeking or promoting the truth, could justify this approach. At most, authentic religious groups should only advocate for a well-formed conscience, one with all the facts, one buttressed with morality, justice and compassion. Free and unhindered exercise of conscience remains the sole right of the individual.
It follows that no law should restrict or lessen our precious freedom of conscience. This is not without precedence. Consider the conscientious objection option available to citizens with regard to military service.
Further, it is interesting to note that many current legal analysts and jurists regret the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights. These experts consider this a rash decision unnecessarily inflaming a cultural war and undercutting state’s rights. Certainly, freedom of conscience suffered as well.
How often does freedom of conscience allow us to walk away from a disagreeable person or situation? What if we were forced to stay? What if we were forced to support and perpetuate it? The workplace, shops, public transportation, or anywhere outside our own home would be agony. Our best escape may be a stack of DVDs and a bag of chips.
Recall that we teach our children to “just say, ‘No.’ ” Hopefully, they'll never be forced to say, “Yes.”
Everyone should cherish and uniquely fulfill their rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But guard fiercely your freedom of conscience and the right to walk away.
Dan Sisk is a manager at Hanford and lives with his wife and two sons in Richland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.