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Conscience, Accommodation and Religious Freedom E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Friday, 09 March 2012

The last month of political debate has shined a bright light on a difficult problem: when religious conscience conflicts with government regulation. When should the government action not apply to certain people with sincere religious objection? Often, this question eludes public attention because the faith perspective at issue is a minority view: as when Amish in Kentucky seek exemption from transportation safety requirements, or Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota argue their faith prohibits them from picking up passengers carrying alcohol. Sometimes, it causes a regional stir, but escapes national attention, as with the fight over pharmacist obligations in Washington State. Regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act, however, have brought the issue in full view of a national audience.

I especially appreciated the big picture take on the subject from columnist Charles Haynes today, explaining why governments should take all claims of conscience seriously - from the big national controversies down to the local dispute.

[F]inding ways to accommodate religious conscience is a balancing act between competing interests - and accommodation isn’t always feasible. But if arriving airline passengers are easily able to get another cab, or if women employees are offered alternative coverage for contraception, or if pharmacy customers have easy access to a nearby store or another pharmacist, then government can and should find a way to provide the service while simultaneously upholding religious liberty.

Religious liberty is less about the freedom to do what one wants or enjoys - and more about the freedom to do what one must do according to the dictates of conscience. To our credit, American history is replete with examples of protecting the right of people to follow their conscience, from exemptions from combat for conscientious objectors to exemptions from the flag salute for schoolchildren.

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