Townhall.com Staff

Editor's Note: This column was authored by Kathleen Hunker

Just before Christmas, a New Jersey hospital finally agreed that it will no longer force its nurses to assist with any abortion related services. The settlement concluded an emotional battle between the hospital’s administration and 12 pro-life nurses, who objected to the procedures on religious and moral grounds.

The New Jersey controversy prompted a series of questions regarding the rights of individuals who oppose abortion, and whether they retain the right to abstain from facilitating what they view as the termination of a human life in the course of their professional and/or business activities. How far does the individual right of conscience extend in light of some states’ expressed interest in offering cost-effective abortion services? It is a valid and disputed question.

Of course, this unresolved tension between religious liberty and changing social policy exists beyond the contours of a university hospital. These questions surface routinely over a wide range of issues and in a wide range of professions. In the 1990s, the government inquired whether practicing Christians could decline renting to cohabitating heterosexual couples. Hospitality companies question whether they can opt out of hosting same-sex “marriage” celebrations, and then there is the vigorously contested matter of pharmacies refusing to dispense contraception.

A common reflex is to disregard the concerns of religious professionals because we view them as self-inflicted. After all, as the sentiment goes, if you have an objection to dispensing certain medications, do not become a pharmacist.

I would be more satisfied with this response if it were limited to a single profession, but that is not the case. A single religious belief can raise questions of conscience in an anthology of unrelated vocations, and an entire catechism of religious beliefs can exclude the faithful from the market in its entirety. As a consequence, if society gives conscience rights no regard whatsoever, religious individuals could find themselves effectively excluded from pursuing a livelihood.

To demonstrate how this works, I compiled a non-exhaustive list of occupations “closed off” to practicing Christians under the philosophy that those who believe in traditional morality should simply avoid particular professions. Each example listed comes from a recent legal action that made this very claim.