Conscientious objector cases show how religious freedom is connected to other rights

Written by William C. Duncan

March 1, 2021

In 1987, a 15-year-old girl from California, Jennifer Graham, took a stand for conscience. In a mandatory class assignment, she and her classmates had been asked to dissect frogs. She objected because she believed “animals were being needlessly killed simply to be used for such projects.”

Eventually, she had to litigate her conscientious objection and won a partial victory in court (the requirement stood but only if “frogs that died naturally” were used) and the state eventually enacted legislation to protect students with this and similar objections. The California law provides that “any pupil with a moral objection to dissecting or otherwise harming or destroying animals, or any parts thereof,” can request an alternative assignment.

One thing to note in this example is that Graham’s objection was not religious in motivation. However, the genesis of her legal right to object in America was.

In colonial times, Quakers, whose religious beliefs included a commitment to pacifism, had to struggle against social marginalization and cultural expectations for exemption from military service. Eventually, however, toleration prevailed. In fact, the 1777 New York state constitution specifically included this exemption.

Thus, the American right to conscientious objection was born. Today it has grown to encompass full rights of conscience. As the Selective Service explains about such rights: “Beliefs may be moral or ethical.” What began as an accommodation of religious commitments has grown to include many whose ethical and moral beliefs are not necessarily religious in nature but who benefit from the principle of accommodation of strongly held beliefs in a variety of contexts.

It is a good thing for everyone that what began as a right of religious expression has grown – for as legal regulation has spread to more and more areas of life, so too has the potential for a conflict between demands of conscience and legal requirements.

The healthcare field raises a number of potential conflicts. Do hospitals have to perform every procedure a potential patient demands? Would a nurse or doctor have to participate in an abortion? Does a pharmacist have to fill a prescription for a drug they feel would implicate them in moral wrongdoing?

Congress has enacted measures to alleviate these concerns. In 1973, as abortion was mandated by a Supreme Court decision, Congress enacted the Church Amendment to ensure that medical professionals would not be required to participate in abortion or sterilization procedures if doing so “would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The scope of this law has since been expanded to apply to “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

The most well-known type of conscientious objection is to military service, thanks in part to Muhammad Ali’s objection to enlistment in the military during the Vietnam War. Federal law specifically allows conscientious objectors – defined as “one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles” – to substitute alternative service for military service in the event of a draft.

Whether protecting deeply held moral beliefs about animal rights, healthcare, abortion or military service, the right to conscientious objection is an important example of how the efforts of people of faith and religious organizations to secure their ability to exercise their beliefs has increased the circumference of freedom for many others – including (perhaps especially) the nonreligious. By extension, it makes clear the value of continuing to protect religious exercise, even when it is not popular.

Just as the legal and philosophical foundations for rights of conscience sprouted from religious roots, the reasoning for overruling conscientious objection can sprout from uprooting the right to religious exercise. As the stories of 18th-century Quakers and Jennifer Graham make clear, our rights as Americans are interconnected. Throwing away one for the sake of a short-sighted political or policy agenda is to jeopardize them all.

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