THE BLOG
02/25/2011 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Unconscionable 'Right to Conscience'

More than halfway through his term in office Obama is now addressing some of the central issues of his progressive and humanist supporters. With quite a bit of fanfare, "don't ask, don't tell" became just a lame duck rule. This week the Department of Justice proudly announced the administration's decision to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act. And less publicly, while political headlines focused on healthcare overhaul last week, the Obama administration made a significant stride toward increasing the separation of religion and government.

A regulation signed during George W. Bush's final days of office allowed health care providers to deny provision of medical services due to their conflicting religious convictions. Such medical services ranged from family planning to caring for LGBT patients. Last Friday, the Obama administration revised the regulation, essentially gutting its ability to be used as an excuse for institutions withholding services to those that need them. While the Religious Right is propagating the myth that doctors will now be coerced into performing abortions against their will, that particular protection has been in place for that for decades, and is untouched by Obama's revision.

Proponents of Bush's regulation claim that it gave people of faith equal right to conscience and a guarantee of their religious freedom. People on the left opposed the regulation on the grounds that it limited women's reproductive freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians.

A question to those on the right is: Whose religious freedom? And a question to those on the left is: Why does this rule limit minority rights? The answer to both lies in a closer reading of the rule, which reveals its strict favoritism towards one faith: Christian Conservatism. Make no mistake that other faiths and non-faiths are not included in this "right to conscience."

Bush's rule gave the healthcare providers the option to be anti-gay, anti-choice, and to become arbiters of morality based on their sectarian beliefs by refusing to give contraception to unwed couples. Specifically, the rule gave cover to workers who did not want to be involved in any activity related to sterilization or abortion, and then broadened the definitions to include involvement with contraception. These options addressed issues that were really only issues to Christian conservatives. Indeed, Bush did not change this rule to allow Hindu doctors to decline appointments with non-vegetarian patients, or Muslim ambulance drivers to refuse transportation for victims of alcohol poisoning. While those may be unlikely prejudices, they reveal how Bush's regulation was a deliberate attempt to deny basic healthcare coverage to persons conservative Christians couldn't have legally discriminated against.

Other more mainstream Christians, such as Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ wouldn't lobby for such changes. Neither would Buddhists, Hindus, or adherents of a number of other faiths. And of course, nontheist humanists and freethinkers were leading the drive to repeal the rule since it was first enacted.

What the conversation on the "right to conscience" lacked was the primary value medical professionals should practice on the job: the value that all humans, regardless of their beliefs and attitudes, deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity -- especially at our most vulnerable.

The Hippocratic Oath, widely used in medical schools around the country, reads:

"I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm."

Medical care is about treatment, not faith, and about prevention, not religion. The ability for physicians to opt out of treating people they feel they can't abide by is not a "right to conscience", it's unconscionable.

Unfortunately, President Obama stopped short of rescinding the provisions entirely (to the delight of Religious Right organizations such as the Catholic Health Association). By doing so he makes it easier for the next administration to revert to George W's religiously biased policies. By keeping the law, confusion and controversy around this issue will unnecessarily persist, and protections have long existed in the law that simply makes this rule unneeded.

The "right to conscience" rule legitimized religious discrimination in all but name, and did so to benefit a narrow reading of one faith. The exemption should ideally be rescinded entirely, but in a political environment so saturated in religion that only one of at least two dozen members of Congress is willing to be open about his lack of belief in God, this is another major step forward, and is giving progressives and humanists reason to think that President Obama will get to the issues that helped his base elect him.