Nov. 1, 2013
Commuting and working in Washington, D.C. affords many opportunities to engage in lively conversations with people who hold diverse opinions on controversial issues. With religious liberty currently being a hot topic, a recent discussion on First Amendment rights and religious expression turned into an instructive session for a group of adult men and women.
The conversation began with a recounting of the case of a New Mexico photographer who was fined $7000 for declining to photograph a same-sex "commitment" ceremony due to her deeply held religious beliefs. The discussion then turned to the provision in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) which mandates that businesses and organizations provide contraceptives, abortion inducing drugs and sterilization procedures in their insurance plans.
Against this backdrop, the question was posed, “If you are the only pharmacist in a community and you don’t believe in the use of contraceptives, do you have an obligation to distribute contraceptives to the community regardless of your personal beliefs?” The consensus of the group, with a couple of exceptions including me, was yes; the pharmacist should comply and distribute the contraceptives for the “common good” of the community. One gentleman asked why the individuals seeking contraceptives could not simply travel to the next town to purchase them. A young woman responded, “It isn’t fair that I should be inconvenienced in getting my contraceptives.“
Her response raises a couple of important thoughts. First, why should the pharmacist have to violate his or her conscience for the convenience of others who can easily obtain abortion- inducing drugs or contraceptives elsewhere? The purchaser probably would not have to go far to obtain them, as access to contraceptives is certainly not a problem. Birth control and emergency contraceptives are available at grocery stores, every major retailer like Wal-Mart and Target, or online. Why does the purchaser’s convenience trump the pharmacist’s conscience?
Second, the assumption was made that the pharmacist would just be willing to acquiesce to the law, discard his or her moral convictions and distribute the objectionable pharmaceuticals. This assumption underestimates the strength and sacred nature of religious or moral convictions. A person with deeply held religious beliefs may very well choose to find another profession or move to another community rather than violate their conscience about such high priority personal matters. In such a case, the attempt to force the pharmacist to dispense the contraceptives against his or her will ends with the pharmacist taking their business to another community, thus leaving the original community potentially without a pharmacist at all.
Many well-intentioned but misguided people could benefit by better understanding the ramifications of limiting the freedom of people to live out their religious beliefs. Perhaps what seems best for one individual’s notion of the “common good” might have unfortunate consequences for many other members of the community. Americans have recognized since our founding the fundamental right of all citizens to free expression of religion and exercise of conscience as inherent, unalienable rights granted to us by God and secured and protected by the Constitution.