Experts warn of troubling mindset behind conscience threats

By Adelaide Darling

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Kyle Duncan, General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, speaks on religious liberty at the Catholic Information Center Feb. 28, 2013. Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.

Advocates of liberty should be concerned by recent trends viewing the “right” to free contraception and abortion as a justification for coercion, said religious freedom experts.

“We should be disturbed when government ranks religious liberty based upon how religious the government thinks their organization is,” said Kyle Duncan, who serves as general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Duncan spoke at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., alongside Charmaine Yoest, CEO of Americans United for Life, on Feb. 28.

He warned of the “grave threat” posed by government policies and attitudes that infringe upon Americans’ freedom of conscience.

Among these policies is a mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some early abortion drugs, even if doing so violates their most deeply-held beliefs.

According to Duncan, the government treats contraceptives as “the sacrament of our modern life,” necessary for “the good life,” health and economic success of society, particularly women.

In the opinion of the government, he explained, economic opportunity and women’s equality are dependent upon the ability to use contraceptive measures.

However, he added, the government already spends “millions upon millions upon millions upon millions of dollars” to provide contraceptives at no cost to women who cannot easily afford them. Therefore, even poor women already had access to contraceptives without forcing employers to violate their consciences.

Nonetheless, Duncan continued, a “disturbing” phenomenon is growing in America as free contraception is coming to be seen as a “right” that is more important than freedom of conscience.

Furthermore, the government has now ranked religious freedom, separating the kinds of bodies who have access to religious liberty into “tiers,” he said. Religious orders and houses of worship receive generous accommodations to obey their conscience, while non-profit religious organizations are given a much more restricted dose of religious freedom.

A third category, consisting of privately owned business owners, is granted “coach-class religious liberty,” he added.

While private businesses such as Hobby Lobby make obviously “religious decisions,” the government claims that “you don’t have any right to practice your religion if you’re in a business,” he observed.

This decision is “out of step with the way our government has treated conscience throughout the years,” Duncan said, explaining that since the early days of the country, the government has welcomed groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers.

“We gave them space” to protect their conscience and live in accordance with their religious objections, he said. But now, the government threatens to reduce religious freedom to a mere “façade.”

Despite these grave concerns, Duncan remains hopeful over the HHS mandate, noting that the government’s view has lost in court 12 times and only secured victories in four cases.

Charmaine Yoest added that there is a troubling connection growing between government coercion and abortion-inducing procedures.

She explained that pro-life activists have seen success in making abortion “an unsavory career trajectory,” and as a result, abortion activists working through the government are “moving from choice to coercion.”

Abortion clinics “don’t have doctors” to perform abortions anymore, Yoest observed, and they have therefore moved towards chemical abortions, which are “easier to dispense to women.”

The goal of “big abortion” is to “normalize” over-the-counter and self-administered chemical abortions, she said, adding that the HHS mandate is helping to do this through its inclusion of “life-ending drugs” as “contraceptives.”

She clarified that a big part of the concern is the redefinition of abortion based on the redefinition of pregnancy to begin at implantation, leaving unborn embryos in their first days of life unprotected.

“Having the FDA define an abortifacient - something that ends life - as a contraceptive: that’s the problem,” Yoest said.

“This is a really alarming trend that we’re watching,” she stressed.

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