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Law, Religion, and Liberty of Conscience

Should a healthcare 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 new frontier in many debates about the free exercise of religion and the scope of legal regulation about important social policies and practices. 

The course examined theoretical arguments about the role of conscience in recent political theory, moral theory, theological ethics, and legal theory. It also 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. 

Critical questions explored (and goals for student learning) included: 

  1. What are the moral, political, and religious bases of “conscience?”
  2. What is the history and scope of conscience protection through law?
  3. How do modern theories about conscience expand or alter the Constitutional protection of “free exercise” of religion?
  4. How are these conscience protections applied in various areas, such as health care, marriage and family, reproductive rights and abortion, education, etc.?
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Michael Kessler

Managing Director
Department of Government and Law Center

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