Michael Gaynor
WYA leads way on defending religious liberty against Obama administration
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By Michael Gaynor
February 29, 2012

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Laws that do not allow people to exercise their religion freely are plainly unconstitutional. Exercising religion freely means carrying out actions in accordance with the dictates of one's conscience. Thus, the right to freedom of conscience is at the core of the right to freedom of religion, and the government may not pass a law or engage in any other activity that violates anyone's freedom of conscience. The U.S. government is obligated to follow what the Constitution says.

The World Youth Alliance (WYA) (www.wya.net), a global coalition of young people committed to promoting the dignity of the person and building solidarity among youth from developed and developing nations that trains young people to work at the regional and international levels to impact policy and culture, was founded in 1999 and now represents over a million young people from individual and organizational members of over 100 nationalities.

WYA has put freedom of conscience before free contraception, sterilization and abortion.

Set forth below is "A Response from the World Youth Alliance" to the Obama Administration's assault of religious liberty. "In recent weeks, we have seen repeated attacks on the freedom of conscience of religious organizations in the United States. The contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act requires that many religious organizations abandon their consciences and provide their employees with services that the organizations find morally reprehensible. President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services have ignored the right to conscience of all Americans in their unbending support of this contraception mandate.

"The World Youth Alliance (www.wya.net) is a global coalition of young people that promotes the dignity of the human person in policy and culture. We believe that human rights are an expression of solidarity, arising as legal instruments from the primacy of the dignity of the person. We therefore believe that the right to freedom of conscience must be protected.

"Accordingly, we recognize the right to freedom of conscience for all Americans. We recognize that the contraception mandate is a violation of the religious liberty and conscience rights of religious organizations. In turn, we ask that the Congress of the United States create and support legislation defending freedom of conscience, such as Senator Rubio's recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012 and H.R. 1179, Representative Fortenberry's similar bill.

"Moreover, we recognize the potential worldwide impact of President Obama's refusal to accommodate religious organizations' right to conscience. The U.S.'s policies and actions resonate around the world, and as a global coalition of young people, we are especially concerned about how the disrespect for freedom of conscience in the United States will impact other countries' policies. We stand together as young people in defense of religious liberty in the U.S. and around the world...."

WYA explained why this mandate violates conscience rights in the following comprehensive, straightforward information statement:

Freedom of Conscience and the U.S. Contraception Mandate

Background

The Affordable Care Act mandates that all group health plans provide preventative services at no cost to beneficiaries. Preventative services include sterilization and contraceptives, even abortifacients like Plan B and ella, which cause early abortions. Although the Obama Administration claims it has presented a compromise for religious organizations opposed to providing their employees with coverage for sterilization and contraception, in reality, many religious organizations will still have to pay for these methods and procedures regardless of what their views on them are.

This calls into question the right to freedom of conscience of all Americans because it affects their ability to act in accordance with their beliefs and morals. Ultimately, it affects all citizens of the world: given the United States' global leadership, and the amount of monetary aid the U.S. provides to other countries, decisions made by the U.S. government impact the policies of many governments around the world.

The World Youth Alliance (www.wya.net) is a global coalition of young people that promotes the dignity of the human person in policy and culture. We are raising the voice of youth in protecting the right to freedom of conscience all over the world.

Here is some information about freedom of conscience and the mandate to help you understand why this issue is so important:

What is freedom of conscience?

1. Freedom of conscience means the freedom to have thoughts, beliefs, and morals, and to act in accordance with them.

Freedom of conscience simply means that all people are able to have their own thoughts, beliefs, and morals. No one has to change his or her views based on what the government or anyone says. Freedom of conscience also means that people are free to act in accordance with their thoughts, beliefs, and morals.

2. Freedom of conscience is an aspect of freedom of religion, which means having the freedom to worship, observe, practice, and teach, alone or with other people.

Freedom of religion or belief doesn't just mean the freedom to worship; it also means the freedom to observe and practice one's belief. It demands that individuals and institutions have the freedom to choose not to participate in actions that violate their freedom of conscience and belief. Freedom of religion or belief also means that people have the right to freely form organizations and conduct these organizations in accordance with their beliefs. Practically speaking, this means that religious organizations (schools, hospitals, etc.) have a right to conduct their affairs in order to uphold their religious mission, and must be able to opt out of activities that would violate that religious mission.

Why should I care about freedom of conscience?

1. Freedom of conscience protects the freedom of individuals with a diversity of beliefs and is essential to peaceful coexistence.

When freedom of conscience is suppressed, the beliefs of the majority or of the ruling elites are imposed on all others. For this reason, the protection of freedom of conscience is necessary for the protection of freedom of speech and expression, and to enable the development of free democracies. When individuals are free to live out their beliefs in the public sphere, this requires respect for the rights of others.

What does the law say about freedom of conscience?

1. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed under the United States Constitution.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Laws that do not allow people to exercise their religion freely are plainly unconstitutional. Exercising religion freely means carrying out actions in accordance with the dictates of one's conscience. Thus, the right to freedom of conscience is at the core of the right to freedom of religion, and the government may not pass a law or engage in any other activity that violates anyone's freedom of conscience. The U.S. government is obligated to follow what the Constitution says.

2. Freedom of conscience is an internationally recognized human right.

Several international human rights treaties, in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantee a right to freedom of conscience.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." The U.S. was heavily involved in the drafting of this declaration and was part of the original group of countries that approved it.

Article 5(d)(vii) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination states that States Parties must "guarantee the right of everyone [ . . . ] to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of [t]he right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." The U.S. has ratified this treaty, which means that it is obligated to follow what the treaty says.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." The U.S. has ratified this treaty, which means that it is obligated to follow what the treaty says.

Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states, "States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." The U.S. has signed but not ratified this treaty.

What is wrong with the mandate?

1. The mandate violates the right to freedom of conscience.

The United States is obligated by the Constitution and the international treaties it has ratified to protect the right to freedom of conscience. However, the mandate that employers' group health plans provide coverage for contraception and sterilization for all employees violates employers' right to freedom of conscience. For example, many religious organizations are opposed to sterilization and contraception, including contraceptives that cause early abortions. They are therefore opposed to the provision of these services to employees through their group health plans.

Under the current version of the mandate, employees of religious organizations that are opposed to providing coverage for sterilizations and contraception must be able to get these services directly from their insurance companies. However, this means that religious organizations that self-insure (that is, they provide insurance directly to their employees, rather than through outside insurance companies) will still have to provide coverage for these services. Second, other religious organizations will still have to pay their insurance companies for their employees' insurance policies, meaning that their money will inevitably be going to providing free contraception and sterilization to their employees. The mandate also does not allow employers who are not religious organizations but who are nonetheless opposed to providing coverage to their employees for contraception and sterilization to opt out.

These options are not satisfactory because they cause employers to act in such a way that violates their conscience. The only way their right to freedom of conscience could be avoided here is if they are allowed to opt out of the mandate that their group health plans or their insurance companies provide contraception and sterilization to employees.

2. The mandate forces employers to promote practices that are against their consciences.

Freedom of conscience doesn't just mean having the ability to opt out of the action itself, but also the freedom to opt out of any action, direct or indirect, that would promote, encourage, or give the appearance of encouraging that action. Therefore, it does not matter that under the mandate employers will not be directly providing contraception and sterilization to their employees. Payment for insurance policies from insurance companies that directly provide contraception and sterilization to religious organizations' employees is tantamount to promotion of using contraception or sterilization, which is against the consciences of many religious organizations.

I'm not American. Why should I care about what happens in the U.S.?

1. This violation of the right to freedom of conscience has broad implications throughout the world, not just in the United States.

The United States has unparalleled influence throughout the world, particularly in small and developing countries. When the U.S. implements a policy that does not respect the right to freedom of conscience, and then firmly sticks to that policy despite public outcry, it sets a precedent for other countries to follow. Countries reviewing their reproductive health policies can use the U.S.'s actions as justification for their own decisions not to respect conscience rights.

Furthermore, in the past the U.S. has used foreign aid to promote the implementation of certain programs and policies.[1] Countries that are in desperate need of foreign aid might implement similar policies in order to receive funding from the U.S.

The U.S. should set a good example by its promotion and protection of human rights. Currently, it is setting a bad example by ignoring a right that is fundamental to society.

What can I do to speak out about freedom of conscience?

1. Be informed.

With this information sheet as a tool, become informed about freedom of conscience and why it is necessary to protect the rights of conscience around the world. This information will provide facts highlighting where conscience rights have been violated and insight into how this U.S. mandate will have an impact on the policies of governments around the world.

2. Fight for conscience rights at the international level.

Sign the World Youth Alliance charter to join 1 million youth from around the world who affirm the dignity of the person and believe conscience rights of all must be protected. I signed the charter because freedom of conscience is inviolable.

3. Support defenders of conscience rights at the national level.

Raise your voice for the protection of conscience rights and contact your U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators today! You can sign our petition here.

4. Bring this information to your local community.

As a member of the World Youth Alliance, you are equipped to bring this information about the freedom of conscience to your school, campus, youth group, or parish community. In solidarity with U.S. leaders who are voicing opposition to this mandate, let us raise our voice in defense of the freedom of conscience and affirm the inviolable dignity of the human person. Tell us how you have made a difference or contact us with any questions at northamerica@wya.net.

Footnote 1: For example, according to U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, U.S. Agency for International Development funds went to promoting a referendum on a new Kenyan constitution that would create a constitutional right to abortion in certain circumstances, while the then-existing Kenyan constitution made no mention of abortion. The new Kenyan constitution passed. See Congressman Chris Smith, House Members Speak Out Against Obama Push for Pro-Abortion Kenyan Constitution, July 30, 2010, http://chrissmith.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?

DocumentID=201859; Congressman Chris Smith, Probe Sought into Alleged Misuse of U.S. Funds by Obama Administration's Push for New Pro-Abortion Constitution in Kenya, May 10, 2010, http://chrissmith.house.gov/

News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=184721.

WYA's sound advice to its members is sound advice to everyone.

© Michael Gaynor

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)

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