Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights announced the creation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
Among its first acts was to propose a rule protecting the conscience rights of religious health care workers within the medical profession. While many conservatives, particularly those in the pro-life movement, hailed the announcement as a major step forward for religious liberty, liberals generally criticized the announcement.
One of their oft-repeated complaints is that existing federal conscience protections are sufficient and any expansion of those protections would result in “overbroad” rules. In other words, liberals now reject basic protections for those health care employees who morally object to being forced to perform objectionable medical procedures.
For liberals the underlying policy rationale should seem familiar. After all, they fought for it. Long ago, they successfully lobbied for conscience protections based on something other than religious beliefs, albeit in a very different context.
On March 8, 1965 — the very day two Marine Corps battalions became the first American combat troops to arrive in Vietnam — the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of United States v. Seeger. The court extended conscientious objector protections to those lacking a religious objection. Under this new standard, a conscientious objector may claim the status based only on moral objections, rather than religious beliefs.
Prior to the Seeger decision, it was generally understood that conscientious objector status was only available to those who could demonstrate longstanding membership in a religious organization with sincerely held opposition to war in any form. After Seeger, those seeking status as conscientious objectors need only cite moral objections.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Seeger urging the court to expand conscience protections beyond the limitations of religious beliefs. Seeger is still touted as one of the ACLU’s most important “victories.”
What a difference an election makes. The same ACLU that criticized the HHS’s proposed rule last week because it purports to enforce protections for those who have both religious and moral objections to certain medical procedures strongly supported expanding conscientious objector status on nearly identical grounds back in 1965.
In fact, the ACLU’s position enshrined in Seeger is still reflected in current law governing conscientious objection. Their change is perplexing and disappointing.
Liberals who once proudly positioned themselves on the front lines of expanding conscience rights beyond religious liberty to include moral beliefs, have now abandoned those who need it most. While they were once willing to expand necessary protections for young Americans headed to war, today, many of those same liberals fight against any expansion of the same rights of conscience for our nation’s health care workers.
Just as it was, and is, wrong to force an American who has a religious or moral objection to war to take up arms and fight, it is also wrong to force an American to choose between their job as a health care worker or their conscience.
Americans, tired of such political hypocrisy, elected President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: If there’s no wall, there’s no DACA fix Trump appears to call out Samsung over missing FBI text messages Trump Commerce pick told lawmakers he would look at reversing Obama move on internet oversight: report MORE in the hopes that his common sense approach would yield results. They were rewarded when his Health and Human Services Administration, following his Executive Order on Free Speech and Religious Liberty, created the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
Perhaps if we wait long enough, we will see liberals come full circle and genuinely celebrate with us our first liberty, religious liberty.
Mike Berry, Esq., is deputy general counsel and director of Military Affairs at FirstLiberty.org, and a former active duty U.S. Marine Officer.