Law, Religion, and Liberty of Conscience

April 15, 2012

Should a health care professional be able to refuse to deliver services or medicines they deem to be immoral, such as abortion or birth control pills? Should laws permitting same-sex unions include accommodations for businesses and government officials to be able to refuse to participate in the union? Often labeled “rights of conscience,” these protections allow persons with moral and religious objections to particular policies to exempt themselves from participation. Conscience rights are an important frontier in many debates about the free exercise of religion and the scope of legal regulation about important social policies and practices.

This report was produced by undergraduate students in a Georgetown University class examining the theoretical arguments about the role of conscience in recent political theory, moral theory, theological ethics, and legal theory. The class explored many legal cases and proposed legislative schemes involving issues such as conscientious objector status, medical services (abortion, pharmaceutical sales, sterilization, fertility, removal of life support), and same-sex marriage.

In producing this report, the students collaborated on a research project focused on a series of interviews with legal scholars and advocates. After refining a set of questions, students reached out to leading scholars who provided answers to a range of questions about the nature of conscience, whether the state should defer to conscience claims in some instances through exemptions from generally applicable laws, and when and how those exemptions should be crafted. Portions of those answers appear in this report.

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