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Angela Bonavoglia Headshot

Obama's Coming Battle With Conscience

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Barack Obama's commitment to expanding support for faith-based initiatives has a lot more bugs in it than the insistence by such organizations that they can discriminate in hiring. He is, apparently without realizing it, wading into the most contentious territory in state-church relations today: the conscience wars.

In recent years, the Catholic Church particularly has argued in court that religiously sponsored institutions have a "conscience" that requires that the institution abide by the precepts of that religion, regardless of how that might obstruct their client's access to care.

What that has meant is that religious institutions that serve the general public, employ the general public, have a secular purpose (say, health care), and receive public money, have refused to provide essential services, some guaranteed by law, to their clients, for example:

• Institutions that provide prescription drug coverage have refused to abide by state laws requiring that such institutions cover contraception.
• Case workers in foster care have been forbidden to discuss safe sex or birth control with teenage clients, who may need such information desperately.
• Hospitals have refused to remove feeding tubes when all hope is gone; to give rape victims emergency contraception; to end a pregnancy; or to allow a mother who has just given birth to be sterilized at the same time, forcing her to have a second operation.
• Religiously sponsored AIDS programs have refused to distribute or even talk about condoms.
• Adoption agencies have preferred to see children in an orphanage than in the care of loving, homosexual parents.

Certainly, faith-based institutions have done an enormous amount to improve the lives of people the world over, and no one wants to see that work end. But determining how to support that work in a country that values deeply the separation of church and state is no easy matter.

Thankfully, case law is mounting that allows religiously sponsored institutions to claim "conscience" exceptions to providing services and opportunities, but to do so only if those institutions exclusively serve people of that religion, exclusively hire people of that religion, and have an exclusively religious purpose.

It is a fair and reasonable requirement for public funding of a faith-based initiative, one that Barack Obama needs to learn about and embrace.