When “religious rights” conflict with other’s rights

Last week I engaged in a discussion about Christian rights in America with The Warrioress at life of a female bible warrioress. She provided some examples that she believes proves that Christian rights are being eroded in America, though I disagree with her in several places. If you have not been following the blog posts you can read up more about it here: “Are Christians Losing Rights in America” Part 2.

The topic of religious rights and civil rights in general is very interesting to me, and I have done a bit of Googling to find recent examples where Christians have claimed that their religious rights have been violated. I have compiled a list of such examples, and I am seeing a theme.

For my first example: Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple.

LEDYARD, N.Y. — Rose Marie Belforti is a 57-year-old cheese maker, the elected town clerk in this sprawling Finger Lakes farming community and a self-described Bible-believing Christian. She believes that God has condemned homosexuality as a sin, so she does not want to sign same-sex marriage licenses; instead, she has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.

Gay marriage has been legalized in New York. Since when have clerks had the right to pass their judgement on citizen’s marriages and decide that they will refuse to personally sign their certificate? Would she expect to get a pass if the citizens seeking a license were previously divorced, and it was against her religious beliefs for divorcees to get remarried? Somehow, I doubt it.

Here is my second example: Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman

The store clerk, Natalie Johnson, is claiming a religious right to discriminate and suing Macy’s for religious discrimination. She is not claiming a right to discriminate against trans people just because they are transgender. No, she is making a very specific point of wrapping her prejudice in religion. Fine. Let’s take her position at face value and look at it.

There are only two approaches I can see to making such an argument: 1) that certain people have more rights to do whatever they want than others, or 2) that rights to engage in certain kinds discrimination supersede any rights of protection from that same discrimination. In the first approach, the only way this sales clerk can make her case is to deny the humanity and equal citizenship status of the transgender person she insists on treating unequally. That doesn’t fly. She has no special, superior citizenship rights because she professes Christianity. Changing one’s sex does not (at least legally) make one a second-class citizen and reduce one to having fewer rights and protections than others. It is reasonable to view both parties as equals in terms of rights and protections.

As the author of this piece notes, the transgender woman in this case has full rights as a citizen, and no one’s religious rights give them the right to treat her as a second class citizen. That includes the right to use to fitting rooms at a department store. And, fortunately, Macy’s agrees.

Christians have also claimed the rights to interfere with other’s medical decisions under the guise of “Conscience” laws. For a brief background and description of “conscience clause” laws, first check the article from USA Today: Conscience clauses not just about abortion anymore. Then, with that in mind, check out this story from early 2011 where a pharmacist used the conscience clause to refuse an emergency order from Planned Parenthood for medication to stop bleeding: Planned Parenthood files complaint against Nampa pharmacist.

Planned Parenthood officials said the complaint states that the pharmacist inquired if the patient needed the drug for post-abortion care. The nurse refused to answer the question based on confidentiality of health information.

According to Planned Parenthood, the pharmacist then stated that if the nurse practitioner did not disclose that information, she would not fill the prescription. The nurse alleged that the pharmacist hung up when asked for a referral to another pharmacy that would fill the prescription.

So, if the woman had an abortion, she should be left at risk of bleeding to death? Or even if she had had a miscarriage, since that was confidential information that the pharmacist has no need to know? When does someone’s religious rights (since this this is at heart what the “conscience clause” is there to protect) allow them to to withhold medication or medical aid to save a person’s life?

Here is the theme I see: Christians are sometimes put in a position of providing a service to people that they believe don’t have a legitimate right to the service they request. In these cases, the requirements of their jobs conflict with what they personally believe God wants them to do. The woman requesting birth control pills can be turned away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in it. Her right to control her fertility is taken away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in contraception. Or even more urgently, the woman who has been raped can be turned away when she requests Plan B emergency contraception, because of the moral beliefs of such a pharmacist. A city clerk can put inconveniences in the way of a lesbian couple getting married, because she doesn’t really believe they have the right to do so.

Can a citizen be legitimately deprived of their rights to made decisions for their own life by another person due to of that person’s religious belief? I think not. And is requiring a pharmacist to dispense prescribed birth control pills, or a town clerk to sign the marriage license for a perfectly legal couple mean taking away their constitutionally guaranteed rights to believe as they choose and worship or not as they choose without interference? I hate to say it, but if your religion forbids you to do your job, you should find another line of work.

For another perspective, can a Muslim man who does not believe woman should be allowed to drive be allowed to refuse to rent a car to a woman in the United States? See: Allowing women drivers in Saudi Arabia will be ‘end of virginity’ Would it not be the same thing?

In short, your right to belief ends where my right to autonomy begins.

For further reading, see the links below.

Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple



Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman





Pharmacist “Conscious Clause”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4425603.stm (Pharmacists ‘denying birth control’)





Louisville KY University Hospital Merger with Catholic system limits patient’s choices, especially regarding reproductive choices.



Pew Research Center: Rights of Conscience vs Civil Rights


The Bible and Gender Equality


EDIT (I thought to add these after a discussion on a previous thread): If you think it is ok to have a religious recital at public schools, you should watch these videos regarding the Smalkowski case. I cannot help but see it as the height of religious privilege, indeed Christian privilege, to think that it is ok to have a bit of religious ritual in a public school when it divides up the students in this way. There is prejudice against atheists in a lot of places, and it is not nice to be outed as the only atheist in school in a small conservative town.

Kicked out of school for refusing to join prayer circle:

The Price of Atheism (ABC 20/20 Interview with Nicole Smalkowski)
Pay attention around 3:14 and especially at 7:20 on.

10 thoughts on “When “religious rights” conflict with other’s rights

  1. Interesting blog….

    Basically, I prefer to take these kinds of issues case by case and not offer one-size-fits-all for tje various scenarios, but when it comes to the example of a minister being unwilling to perform a marital ceremony for same sex couples, I don’t believe any minister should be obligated or forced to do so, regardless of the approval of whomever, including the state or his licensure and credentials to perform such a ceremony. Religious rights and freedom of religious expression forbid a minister of God from performing a gay marital ceremony, at least based upon what the bible says, and the fact that Jesus Christ stated that marriage is between a man and a woman.

    Certainly a gay couple can go where there are gay ministers and get their ceremony taken care of, but they have no right to force anyone to perform such a ceremony if the individual finds the act offensive and against his religion.

    This being the case, imo, there are other situations that would demand that the religious suck it up and act on the matter, regardless of belief, and thus I agree with you on the matter.. such as the matter of the pharmacist filling Rx’s.

    I don’t agree, however, that a nurse must be party to or be forced into performing and asssisting with an abortion if she is dead set against abortion.

    In other words, this is complicated and it has to be handled in that manner, with respect for all party’s concerned, and the constitution as the first priority in terms of the rights of all. When it is a matter of health or someone’s life and an immediate need, I would think that person’s life and the care they need supercede some long drawn out court battle/issue. Hope you get what i mean..

  2. for example…

    In an emergency situation where the nurse is against abortion and a woman is bleeding to death due to a botched abortion, I think the nurse must assist to save the woman’s life.

    A nurse shouldn not, however, be forced to sit by and allow a viable baby to die if the abortion was unsuccessful and the baby is still alive and the doctor wants to conveniently leave it somewhere to die alone, (as has been reported elsewhere as occurring.) The nurse should not be forced to help perform an abortion if she doesn’t believe in abortion. Find another nurse who does, is my answer to that problem.

    People’s religious rights supercede forcing them to engage in actions which go against these — but actions that go with a person’s job, that they are told about IN ADVANCE of taking the job, can be carefully explained to said individual so that they don’t take a job that demands their religious rights be compromised.

  3. I don’t have time to address every one of your examples, but in regard to this:
    [To ban a transgender person from entering a fitting room because your religion opposes it is no different from banning them for wearing or not wearing a yarmulke. That is clearly an act of religious discrimination. Claiming a right to engage in religious discrimination waves your right of protection from religious discrimination.]

    My point of view is that the clerk should have called in her manager/supervisor and asked if the transgendered individual could enter the dressing area in point. This is complicated…. what do the unclothed females inside the dressing area think about undressing in front of a transgendered individual? What are their rights?

    This could become quite complex, if you catch my drift. Anyway, the clerk should have deferred to a supervisor on the matter and if in doubt, allow the woman to use a private employee restroom area until the matter could be resolved.

  4. Hi Warrioress, thanks for you comment. I actually agree with all you have to say here, even the part about religious clergy not being forced to perform weddings with which they disagree. To me, it underscores the importance in not requiring wedding officiants to be active clergy, so that people who do not agree with the views of the local churches can have and enjoy their wedding ceremony.

    Also glad to hear that you agree that an immediate need to save a person’s life outweighs a nurse or doctor’s personal objections to a procedure. I also agree that a nurse or other medical practitioner should not be required to participate in non-emergency abortion procedures if it goes against their beliefs. Same with the pharmacist, in cases where an objection is not a serious obstacle to the patient or does not delay emergency treatment (including emergency contraception, which has a very short window in which it is effective.)

    Everything here is context specific.

  5. Oh, and one more thing I just noticed when rereading though the comments. You said:

    In an emergency situation where the nurse is against abortion and a woman is bleeding to death due to a botched abortion, I think the nurse must assist to save the woman’s life.

    The situation I was talking about was not the need to save a woman’s life due to a blotched abortion. I think that would go without saying… I was also talking about a situation where an abortion is needed to save a woman’s life, as in the story below. My thought is that even a nurse with a religious aversion to abortion should be required to participate due to the grave circumstances (that is, if no one else with the needed skills and no objection is immediately available). Fortunately for the woman involved here, the pro-life nun decided that an abortion was the right course of action in this case, even against the will of the church running the hospital.

    Nun Excommunicated After Saving a Mother’s Life With Abortion

  6. Oh yes, if the abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life, yes the nurse simply has to proceed, imo. What a horrific choice to have to make, but I think most people agree that the mother’s life must come first.

  7. As for the young teenage girl in the videos, she’s certainly entitled not to have to participate, but there really was nothing wrong with merely standing in the circle, eyes open, head not bowed, and just politely waiting until the prayer was over. Making a big issue out of other people’s desire to pray in a group seems like a mistake. Why make a big issue out of it? The reason this became an issue is because the young woman made it an issue. She took opportunity to create an issue where none existed.

    • I have to disagree. Would you say the same if it was your child who was set apart from her peers by not wanting to participate in a traditional Muslim ritual? Nichole was not familiar with the “Lord’s Prayer” and it seemed like a very strange and cultish think to her. Also in the video, she explains why just standing there and bowing her head was not an option. And what about the actions of the teachers who joined the kids in their bullying? You think she brought it on herself by be honest about what she though and believed?

      You don’t just think we should always defer to the majority do you? What’s popular is not always what’s right.

  8. I’m starting again to think that people who go on about America being a “Christian nation” really mean that Christians are entitled to certain priviledges that no one else gets to have. Like the right to be safe and protected and not bullied in the public schools when standing up for one’s beliefs. The public schools serve EVERYONE not just Christians and the non-Christians are not there to be a “mission field” for the Christians to “spread the gospel” too. I’m sorry, but if an atheist student cannot feel just as much a part of her public high school basketball team as anyone else of any religion, then something is seriously wrong in that school.

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