Let us not forget that although the Pope has great p.r. and hits all the right notes with the American public, he still adheres to the Church’s doctrine that homosexual acts are “grave sins.” And he claims that any exercise of religion in the public sphere is a “right” that cannot be abrogated. According to NBC News, the Pope aired the latter view to reporters while flying back to Europe on the Papal Plane (“Shepherd One”).
While returning from his visit to the U.S., the pontiff told reporters aboard the papal plane Monday that anyone who prevents others from exercising their religious freedom is denying them a human right.
. . . The pontiff was asked: “Do you … support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example when issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?”
He did not refer specifically to Davis in his reply, saying: “I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection … but yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”
What about the “right” not to be infected by someone who refuses vaccination on religious grounds? Or the “right” of children to be given medical care when their parents object on religious grounds? Or the “right” of gays (now an official legal right!) to get a marriage license? The story continues:
Francis added: “Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying, ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.'”
Asked if this principle applied to government officials carrying out their duties, he replied: “It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right.”
Well, yes, conscientious objection is a “right” in the sense that one can object, but that doesn’t mean that you’re free from punishment for exercising that “right”. I would have gone to prison, for instance, if the government hadn’t granted me official CO status allowing me to work in a hospital.
But alternatives like that aren’t always available. The courts have decided that exercising religious freedom isn’t an untrammeled “right” that can always be exercised without penalty, especially if it conflicts with one’s official duties or with laws. The Kim Davis case is still hanging in the air, but if the government cannot accommodate religious beliefs that keep one from doing one’s job without onerous and elaborate fixes, the tenor of laaw is that those beliefs cannot be enacted.
And, contra the Pope, we can indeed select which rights have merit and which do not. That’s nothing new. Religious “rights” that prevent others from obtaining their own legal rights, like marriage licenses for gays, don’t have merit. Religious objections to vaccination, though allowed in 48 of the 50 US states (West Virginia and Mississippi are the exceptions), do not have merit, for they endanger society as a whole as well as children too young to make their own decisions. Religious exemptions of pharmacists from dispensing contraceptive devices or medication, though allowed in six states (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota), have no merit because they prevent or obstruct others from getting legal medication.
Taken to its extreme, the Pope’s view is that any religious person who works for the government or caters to the public can avoid doing certain duties on religious grounds, regardless of how important those duties are or how much they inconvenience others. If you’re a Catholic waiter, for example, you can refuse to serve gay couples or sell them food.
In general I don’t like discussions of “rights,” as their assertion is often a way to shut down discussion. Let’s instead talk of consequences: the consequences for society’s well being if religious people are allowed to shirk certain duties. When you think that way, as in the case of vaccination or, perhaps, a small county office where there’s one Catholic clerk who objects to gay marriage, or a pharmacy with one pharmacist, you’ll find that yes, some religious exemptions have merit and others don’t.