Rabbinic Wisdom

Rabbi Sandy Sasso has an important column in this morning’s Star.

There has been a lot of heat–and considerably less light–generated by the requirement that health insurance companies make contraception available free of charge to employees of Catholic universities and hospitals. Much of that heat has been deliberately stoked–a politically cynical  ploy intended to rile up faithful folks by accusing the administration of religious hostility.

As the good Rabbi reminds us, the conflict between laws of general application and the beliefs of religious groups is not new. Employers who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, among others, must offer their employees coverage for procedures their own beliefs prohibit. As she further reminds us, there is a critical difference between telling the faithful they must do something that violates their conscience–use or pay for contraception, in this case–and telling them they may not impose their beliefs on employees who do not share them.

These questions of conscience are inevitable in a country that is constitutionally obliged to respect diversity while acting to advance the common good. At some point, individuals must obey that “inner voice” that tells them not to participate in evil. No one celebrates the obedient German who was “just following orders.” On the other hand, even fewer of us celebrate the zealot who insists that the law must reflect his particular beliefs to the detriment of others who disagree.

If my religion teaches that I must sacrifice my first-born, the government is not required to respect that belief. On the other hand, if I am a competent adult member of a sect that rejects transfusions, the government should respect my right to refuse that procedure, no matter how grave the consequences.

In between, there is plenty of opportunity for good faith dispute.

Last night, at dinner with friends, our host told us a story about his relative who lives in a very small town in Southern Indiana. Her teenage daughter had horrific menstrual cramps, and the doctor prescribed birth control pills to control the pain. When my friend’s cousin went to the only drugstore in town, the pharmacist refused to fill the prescription. Even though the woman explained that the purpose was medical, not sexual, the pharmacist was adamant that filling a prescription for contraception for a sixteen-year-old violated her conscience.

Should pro-life police officers be excused from protecting abortion clinics? What about anti-gay firefighters who are called to extinguish a blaze at a gay bar? Where do we draw the line? Some people will view the “conscience exemption” for pharmacists as an appropriate accommodation. Others will argue that if an individual is unwilling to provide the services the profession exists to provide , she should find a different profession.

There are legitimate, unavoidable conflicts between conscience and the common good in a free society. Playing cynical political games does not advance our ability to deal with those challenges.